Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Historic Week: Supreme Court Decisions, Vacation Bible School, Manuscript Assembly, oh my!

Here we sit at the end of a historic week.  When I look back, will I remember the Supreme Court decisions?  Or will I remember it as a time when major events that I didn't see as huge at the time happened in my work life?  Or will I remember it as the week of being Arts and Crafts Director for Vacation Bible School?

For those of you expecting a post that wraps up the VBS experience, head on over to my theology blog.  Today I wrote this post about lessons learned from the arts and crafts angle.  Tomorrow, I'll write about other lessons learned.  It was fun, but also exhausting.  Unlike the public school teachers who made up the majority of the staff, I was working my full-time job during the day and doing VBS at night.

Would I do it again?  Yes.  Would I want to do it as my full-time job?  Maybe.

So, let's talk about other things.  Let's talk Supreme Court decisions.  I remember looking back through journals that I kept in the 1980's, looking for mention of some national news event.  Absolutely no mention.  I've wondered if I shouldn't make more mention of national events as I blog.

Here's what I will remember about that health care decision.  On the morning that it was handed down, I was putting together a new manuscript for a chapbook competition.  I was falling in love with my poems all over again.  I was seeing connections.  I was striving for the right balance of poems that have a tone of despair and more hopeful poems.

My chapbook manuscript is titled "Cassandra Considers the Dust."  It is another collection of poems that talk about the modern workplace.  But about half of them circle back to theological ideas, like the two that are titled "Conducting the Performance Review on the Feast of the Ascension" (found here on this blog) and "Completing the Assessment Document on the Feast of the Epiphany."  About a third of them have some sort of tie to monasticism.

As the analysists talked about the implications of the Supreme Court decision, I made my decisions about which poems to keep.  I could only include about 20 of them, because I was preparing this manuscript so that I could enter it into a competition run by YellowJacket Press.  As the afternoon wore on, I made decisions about order--which poem should appear where in the manuscript.   I looked up publication information so that I could create an Acknowledgements page.

I feel very good about this manuscript, both as a chapbook and as a basis for a larger manuscript.  More thoughts, as I have them, to come!

During the first hour of the day, as the first news from the Court trickled out, my friend called me.  We chatted, and she said, "My head is about to explode."

I said, "From this Supreme Court news?"

She said, "No, I'm thinking about Eratosthenes and the circumfrence of the Earth and why someone hasn't just measured it with a tape measure."

Of course, I needed to know more.  Her daughter was working on a college project, and so she's picked up tidbits of fascinating information.  And now, so have I.

I mentioned that I intended to write a poem about a person who's listening to newscasts about historic Supreme Court decisions while pondering Erastosthenes and the circumfrence of the Earth.  She said, "If you need to know more, just ask my daughter."

I said, "She can be my Wikipedia!"  And then I imagined a song--a country song or a punk song--with the title "Gal, you are my Wikipedia."  We laughed for a bit, imagining the band we'd put together, the tribute we'd give the daughter in the liner notes.

"Does anyone write liner notes anymore?" I asked.

And here I could riff on the things that have passed away, the things I miss, the ways life changes, and the way life remains the same.  We could play a game and name the Supreme Court decision that we feel will be the most important one of our lifetime.  Will it be this one?  Unlike some of the news programs that weighed in on Thursday, I don't think so.

I would make a case for Brown v. Board of Education, which actually came 11 years before my birth (so not exactly my lifetime).  I would argue that that case transformed the Civil Rights arena for African-Americans, which would go on to be transformative for us all.  I would also argue for Roe v. Wade.

It's fitting I was introduced to Eratosthenes on a day that made me think of history and how the Supreme Court changes history and how it doesn't.  The real Wikipedia notes, "In addition, Eratosthenes was the founder of scientific chronology; he endeavored to fix the dates of the chief literary and political events from the conquest of Troy."

It's a week where much changed, yet much remained the same.  One arena of my work life doesn't change:  I must return to poems, I must think about best orders, I must make intriguing connections which may lead to new poems.  It was a week of leavings:  last days for some of my work colleagues, last days for raises, a fond farewell to Nora Ephron.

I listened to a re-broadcast of an interview with Nora Ephron.  She mentioned that we're living in an age where we have access to some of the best bread that has ever been made--in the whole history of the world, we have the best bread now.  She doesn't want to miss out on that. 

May our week-ends be full of that which nourishes, whether that be bread or history or poems or music.  If history must be made, may it be kind to us.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Summer Pleasures

I must confess:  being the Arts and Crafts director at Vacation Bible School has been more exhausting than I thought it would be.  After each work day, I load up the car with supplies and head to the church where for the next 4 hours, I help preside over fun and some chaos of the mostly organized sort.

I am very glad that my sister reminded me to get washable paint.

Next week I need to develop a list of writing tasks to accomplish before summer ends.  Next week, I need to write a new poem. 

This week, I need to get through the week.

But hey, it could be worse.  Yesterday, I was reminiscing about days in grad school when we couldn't afford to run the AC.  Most people look at me with pity when I tell them that, but those days had their pleasures too.

Long ago, I wrote a poem that explains those pleasures then that are lacking now.  It was first published in Mid-America Poetry Review.

Betting with Blueberries

We bet with blueberries, playing poker
late into the night. We’re too poor
for cable or air conditioning, but we afford
occasional treats like fresh fruit in season. The fan
blows warm air across this sauna of a room.
We drip sweat and deal the cards.

I lose every time. My appetite
for berries overwhelms my desire to win.
Besides, I barely understand the rules.
The heat sucks away my powers of concentration.
I wrap ice cubes in washcloths, dab at my skin:
old-fashioned air conditioning.

Years later, I sit alone in my air-conditioned
house. All my friends, too busy
for unstructured evenings, desert
me for families and jobs.
I could afford blueberries every night, in season and out,
if I wanted, but I’d trade all these luxuries,
so out of reach in my student past,
I’d trade them all for endless poker nights,
the comfort of friendship, the consolation of the future.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

When the News at Work is Bad

We've had several years of bad work news.  Some times, the bad news is minor and not exactly unexpected:  health insurance will cost more, for example.  Other times, the news is much more devastating:  lay offs.  This week, the bad news has been somewhere in the middle:  for this fiscal year which starts July 1, we will have no raises.

For years now, I've said that I'm the last academic in America who's been getting raises and not been required to teach extra classes.  Actually, that would be the faculty members in my school, since I'm now more of an administrator than a college teacher. 

I know college faculty across the country teaching in all sorts of colleges and universities, and for the past several years, not one of them has gotten a raise.  Many of them have had to teach an extra class for no extra money, which is effectively a pay cut.  Many of them have not been able to teach the extra classes that they used to teach, again, effectively a pay cut.

Meanwhile, at my for-profit college, we've continued to get a raise each year.  I've thought that the fact that we've continued to get raises has been a sign of company health, along with the fact that we still get a 401K match and our health insurance has only gone up by $10 or so a month each year.

So, on Tuesday afternoon, when I got the e-mail that announced that we'd have no pay raises for the coming year, I felt a bit of doom, even though I wasn't really surprised.  So, what did I do?

Why, I went to Vacation Bible School, of course.  The children needed Arts and Crafts, and I was ready.  Tuesday night was clay night.

Monday night was a study in chaos, so I felt a bit worried about clay.  But the children were intent.  No one flung the clay across the room.  The clay wasn't goopy, so my worries about clay smeared in hair wasn't realized.  The teenagers who were there to help were as focused as the children. 

At the end of the evening, I realized I had spent several hours not thinking about work.  Hurrah for art!

When we got our last batch of bad news, faculty lay-offs back in March, I was scheduled for my regular stint at the soup kitchen in the late afternoon.  I debated whether or not to go.  What if someone needed me?

I decided that I'd go ahead and go.  The lay-offs would be a crisis that would last more than one day.  But homeless people still needed to be fed, and my help was needed.

As with Vacation Bible School, I realized with a bit of a shock that several hours had passed, and I hadn't thought about work.  I couldn't stay in my world of alternate service forever, of course.  But the experience restored a bit of perspective.

Long ago, in the summer of 1988, when I was wrestling with writing my thesis, I did volunteer work at a food pantry.  I'd get revision notes, feel despair, and then head to the food pantry, to be reminded of what real despair looks like.

It's good to remember that the bad news that we got on Tuesday isn't devastating.  We still have our jobs.  We still have benefits.  We work in an industry that doesn't leave us so exhausted that we can't help out at Vacation Bible School.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I Feel Bad about My Neck and About Nora Ephron's Death

I actually do not feel bad about my neck--not yet.  But because of Nora Ephron's book by that title, I expect that I will some day.  I've been warned.  I also remember her appearance on Oprah to promote the book.  She talked about how few people have gray hair anymore, and so we all look younger than we are.  I hadn't ever thought about that before, but it's true.

Last summer I found my first silvery hair.  I saw it as a curiousity.  This summer, I'm seeing an invasion.  I'm blondish, so it's not so noticeable to others.  I'm budgeting for a future of hair highlights, though.  I've been warned.

I do feel bad about Ephron's death.  I also felt a shock--I didn't realize she was 71.  I felt the sadness that I feel when someone in their 40's dies.  But Ephron has had a full, rich life.

This story on the NPR website gives some background, along with this great quote:  "'I think it's like a lot of things about getting older — you have absolutely no imagination that this is actually going to happen to you,' she told NPR's Neal Conan several years ago. 'You think for quite a while you're going to be the only person who doesn't need reading glasses, or the only person who doesn't go through menopause ... and in the end, the only person who isn't going to die. And then you suddenly are faced with whichever of those things it is, and you can't believe how unimaginative you have been about what it actually consists of.'"

Yes, for years, I had felt a bit of glee about the fact that I didn't need reading glasses.  I thought that maybe I'd avoid that fate, even though I know that every pair of eyes needs reading glasses by age 50.  The only people who don't need reading glasses are the ones who don't read.

It's been shocking to me how quickly my eyes have needed reading glasses.  One month I could read perfectly; one month later, I'm blurry-eyed at every reading opportunity that's not a screen.


I had forgotten that Nora Ephron wrote serious movies in addition to romantic comedies and light essays.  I spent my college years terrifying myself by watching nuclear war movies:  Testament, The Day After, and Threads, the terrifying triumvarate.  But perhaps I should have watched Silkwood a few more times.  I've probably been in more danger from local nuclear plants than governments with nuclear weapons.

And if I watched it again, I'd likely pay attention to the dangers posed by big corporations.  That's the threat that's feeling most predatory to me these days.

Most of us will probably remember her as the writer of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.  You may remember the post that I wrote in February of 2011 after watching When Harry Met Sally, along with other movies.  I concluded this way:  "I'm happy to report that When Harry Met Sally still holds up all these years. Witty dialogue, crisp plotting, beautiful settings, perfectly done minor characters, truly funny bits. It was a great way to end my disappointing movie streak."

The ever-wonderful Linda Holmes has written a beautiful essay about Nora Ephron's romantic comedies, and she spends some time on what Nora Ephron taught her as a writer:  "Nora Ephron would be part of any box of influences I might try to pull together that explained how I started writing, how I learned what kinds of jokes I like, and how I learned what kinds of love stories I respond to. I suspect I still accidentally try to talk like I'm in a Nora Ephron romantic comedy; I wouldn't know it, because I'd just think of it as trying to make great conversation."

And let us not forget about Nora Ephron the director.  She paved a way when very few women were directing movies. 

I feel bad about all the creative folks we've lost this year.  Very bad.  But also very thankful to have had them and their work to nourish us.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Slow Cooking, Slow Computing

On Friday afternoon, the tech guys showed up at the office to change out computers and switch us to Windows 7.  This morning, we discovered that all files hadn't made the migration (or something glitchy happened with server synching over the week-end).  Happily, my old hard drive still exists and the larger My Documents folder also still exists on the old server.  I think that everything has now transitioned, but my old hard drive will be kept a bit longer.

As the tech guys worked, my colleague and I talked about writing by hand and writing by typewriter.  We remembered carbon copies and the ditto machine of my grad school days.  We couldn't use the copy machine, but we could make as many damp, purple-inked dittos as we wanted.  Somewhere in my physical file cabinet at home, I likely still have those copies.

I remember learning to work the ditto machine and thinking, "Ah, one of the tools of revolution is now in my hands."  Little did I know how cheap it was about to become to compute and to print--or to send words and documents and images flying across the globe for almost no cost.  Amazing.

I will agree with my writer friends who extol the joys of writing by hand, of slowing down to consider our words.  Of course, many of my words don't merit that level of introspection, so I wouldn't trade in my computers.

Over the week-end, I returned to a different slow joy.  On Sunday, we stopped by an Italian market and got all sorts of deals on vegetables that were past their prime.  We got pounds of tomatoes for just one dollar.  Sure, we had to cut out a spot here or there.  But that still left plenty of tomato.

But that did leave the larger question of what to do with all these tomatoes which weren't much longer for this world?  I made a tomato sauce, of course.  I chopped them all up, along with a green pepper, various herbs, and a slug of red wine, and let it simmer all afternoon.  It was the perfect way to spend a rainy Sunday.  And a great way to save veggies.

It's not the same as growing them myself, tending and harvesting from my garden.  But it's close.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dark Nights of Our Souls

Today is the birthday of St. John of the Cross, born in 1542.  We celebrate his feast day on the day that he died, December 14.  He's one of those mystics that baffle from a distance and maybe even up close.  He's one of those monastics that wanted to make the cloister more rigorous, more demanding--and it's not like monastics were living an easy life before these Counter Reformation people came along!

Even those of us who are completely non-religious and non-spiritual may owe a debt to St. John of the Cross.  He's one of the writers who coined phrases that are still with us.  One of his most famous is "the dark night of the soul."  Even people who don't believe in the soul understand the truth contained that phrase.  It's an elegant phrase that captures so much in such an economy of words.

I am surrounded by people undergoing various dark nights.  I have a friend who is still waiting for her burned house to be restored.  Most of my friends work in academia, and some of us feel our jobs are more threatened than others, but no one believes that higher ed is in fine shape.  A colleague at work had her house broken into--luckily no one was hurt.

St. John of the Cross would tell us that these dark nights are necessary to strengthen our souls, but that's stony comfort when one is floundering in a dark night period.

Those of us who are creative types have likely found ourselves in similar straits, when the creative work stalls, when we lose confidence, when we find ourselves so crunched for time that the creative work must wait.

Here's what I have learned:  if we wait, hard as that may be, the good times return.  The ideas bubble up, the confidence returns, the time crisis recedes.  There are times that we can hurry the process along, but there are more often times where we just have to wait for the wheels to turn.

What to do while waiting?  Maybe we can explore a different creative activity.  Maybe read.  Maybe go visit a museum or a park or something else that gets us out of our heads and our tortured thoughts.

It's a form of prayer, the activity that spiritual folks would tell us to turn to when the dark night of the soul descends.  It's a form of continuing to commit to our disciplines, what the monastics would tell us to do.

Sometimes it's good to leave the desk, the work table, the easel.  Some times it's good to remember to keep breathing and to stay put, staring at the blank page, the empty canvas.  Some times turning our attention to a different project can rescue us from our tortured dungeons.

Above all, we must remember that dark nights of the soul do pass.  They are temporary, even though they may feel endless.  And one day, we may look back with a strange fondness for those dark times.  We may say, "Oh yes, that was the crisis that brought my family together."  "Oh yes, that was the stretch that turned me towards my more successful creative output."  "Oh yes, those dark times make me appreciate the light more."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Sane Woman Dreams of Turing Machines

The title for this blog piece is a riff on Jana Levin's book title A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.  It's one of those titles that both delighted me when I first heard it and made me sick with jealousy wishing I could come up with something so wonderfully evocative.  I first heard her speak on the Speaking of Faith NPR show (which is now called On Being); you can listen here.

On this day a hundred years ago, Alan Turing was born--it's one of those births that would change the world as we know it.  He's one of the men who did the work that led to our modern computers (originally called Turing machines).

Would someone else have done the work had he not done it?  Probably.  But he did it when he did it, and so much would be different if we had had to wait for others to make the some discoveries and connections.

I've written before about computers and how they've intersected with my history and the larger history of the world, so I won't rehash that.  But I thought of it again, when yesterday the tech guys showed up in our quiet office to replace the computers.

I have an intuitive understanding of the computer that my colleague, who is of an older generation, does not.  Part of that understanding is because I have used them more.  I've also dabbled a bit with programming, way back in the BASIC days.  I went to college with people who were fearless about taking apart their Commodore computers and soldering the motherboards into new configurations.  Many days I wish I had continued down those roads.

But there are many creative paths I didn't follow.  Sigh.

Today is also the anniversary of the day when Title IX was signed into law, another development that changed my life in ways I can barely articulate.  We tend to think of Title IX as being about sports, but it was about so much more.

We live in a time period where more women are going to college than men--or if we're not quite at that point, we will be soon.  Even though pay rates are not yet equal, if we look at raw demographics, in my circles, it's not uncommon for women to be making more than men to whom they are partnered.

Are we all OK with that?  I know partnerships that are existentially threatened, while I know of others where the men are cheerful and happy that the bills are being paid.

Title IX has yet to change our landscape completely:  note the lack of women in the fields of engineering and computing.  Yet that might be more about our school systems than about how we treat genders.  Alas, we don't have the pre-college school infrastructure in place to train lots and lots of engineers, scientists, and computer designers.

It's strange to me that I went to school in the 1970's and early 80's, not exactly a high water mark for public education--or at least, it didn't seem to me at the time.  Yet we had computers to program back when they weren't cheap.  We were encouraged to explore all sorts of areas:  home ec, shop, art, computers, sports.  We dissected actual animals in actual Biology labs and created all sort of potions in Chemistry lab.  We took field trips to see local universities doing productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen.

Ah, the joys of the days of no high stakes testing!

I was also very lucky to have my parents.  My dad encouraged my interest in computers and sci fi and helped me survive shop class, which I had to take, despite my lack of interest and terror of power tools which has never receded.  My mom was happy to let me cook and bought any ingredients I requested--except for saffron which was ungodly expensive.  They both encouraged my interests in running, nutrition, and vegetarian cooking.  For parents born in the late 1930's, they were surprisingly free of gender role expectations.

So today I will raise a glass to Richard Nixon, who managed to accomplish much towards making us a more open society, both because of and in spite of his paranoia and bitterness.  Today I will raise a glass to Alan Turing, another deeply tortured man who catapulted our culture to a completely different place.

Today I will raise a glass to my parents, and I'll continue to wish that all kids could have parents who support and love them in ways that nurture them fully as individuals.  In this day after various convictions in high-profile child sexual abuse cases (the Sandusky case, the monsignor in Philadelphia), I'll continue to yearn for a world where children do not suffer in this way or in any other way. 

Some quotes to inspire you, despite your strange summer weather (we're very rainy down here in South Florida, while the Pacific Northwest is cold, and the Atlantic coast has been oddly hot while the West is on fire):

Here's a quote from Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines:

"I am here in the middle of an unfinished story. I used to believe that one day I would come to some kind of conclusion, some calming resolution, and the restlessness would end. But that will never happen. Even now, I'm moving toward a train. My heart is thumping. My lungs are working. There is a man, a woman, a bench, the glasses, the smooth hair, an umbrella. We are all caught in the stream of a complicated legacy — a proof of the limits of human reason, a proof of our boundlessness. A declaration that we were down here on this crowded, lonely planet, a declaration that we mattered, we living clumps of ash, that each of us was once somebody, that we strove for what we could never have, that we could admit as much. That was us — funny and lousy and great all at once."

Here's Levin talking about the fact that we are composed of earlier generations of stars:

"For instance, let's say somebody said that they had a belief system in which it was simply posited that carbon came out of, I don't know, a blue sky one day. That wouldn't make me feel any more meaning about who I was in the world. It feels much richer to me to imagine that a cold, empty cosmos collapses with stars, and stars burn and shine, and they make carbon in their cores and then they throw them out again. And that carbon collects and forms another planet and another star and then amino acids evolve and then human beings arise. I mean, that's, to me, a really beautiful narrative."

When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be an astronomer.  Listening to Levin say the following made me wish I had followed that plan:

 "Our convincing feeling is that there should be no limit to how fast you can travel. You just go faster and faster and faster. Our convincing feelings are based on our experiences because of the size that we are, literally, the speed at which we move, the fact that we evolved on a planet under a particular star. So our eyes, for instance, are at peak in their perception of yellow, which is the wave band the sun peaks at. And so it's not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. And so we're limited, also, by that.

That makes our intuitions excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. And that's how we evolve. That's how our brains evolved and our perceptions evolved, was to respond to things like the Sun and the Earth and these scales. And if we were quantum particles, we would think quantum mechanics was totally intuitive. And it's not intuitive for anybody else, but we would think that things fluctuating in and out of existence or not being certain or whether they're particles or waves or — these kinds of strange things that come out of quantum theory would seem absolutely natural.

And what would seem really bizarre is the kind of rigid, clear-cut world that we live in. So I guess my answer would be that our intuitions are based on our minds, our minds are based on our neural structures, our neural structures evolved on a planet, under a sun, with very specific conditions. So we reflect the physical world that we evolved from. So I guess — I guess the bottom line is that our intuitions are good, our intuitions are good . . ."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Exercise: Inspiration and Perspiration

Thoughts I've recently explored while spinning away on my spin bike:

--Yesterday I spun longer than I thought I might, partly because it felt good, and partly because I was exploring interesting short story ideas that I want to write.  You may remember that I'm working on a linked story collection and that I'm doing more with future generations than I originally thought I would.  I've also been feeling inspired by my memories of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.

Yesterday, I thought, what if one of the characters was cloned and reappeared later?  And then I thought, what if is was a future generation of cloning, where it wasn't just genetic information that got replicated into the clone, but also memories and information?

And what would you call this future generation of cloning?  If you've got clever ideas, I'd love to hear them.

I know that scientifically, it looks impossible to do that.  At least from where we sit and write now.  But I'm not sure I'm worried about that.

--Today I thought about various writing projects.  I've been thinking of eBooks and becoming my own publisher.  But what about audio books?  I'm not seeing a lot of audio books of poems.  I bet there are people out there, especially people with vision issues, who would happily pay for an audio book of poems.

--I also spent a lot of time thinking about my upcoming stint as Vacation Bible School Arts and Crafts director.  My problem, and what a delightful problem, is that I have too many ideas.  But I'm narrowing them down!


I love the way that exercise leads to inspirations of all sorts.  Some of my best ideas have come during long runs.  I've solved all sorts of writing problems, from grad school papers to my dissertation to plot issues in my novels and short stories.

It's a stage of composition that we don't always hear much about.  When I took Composition theory classes, we covered all sorts of prewriting techniques, but very little was said about how the brain works on composing even when it's not looking at paper and scrawling out ideas.

Some times long walks have helped me solve writing problems, but often, the sweatier the exercise, the more quickly solutions come to me.

At least now, after years of writing, I realize that if I'm blocked, it might help to get out and take a walk or go for a run/spin.  Long ago I might have forced myself to sit; now I don't. 

Of course, now my problem lies in finding time to pursue all the interesting ideas that come to me while I'm exercising!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Praise of Textbook Publishing and the Mutilated World

Today is the birthday of Adam Zagajewski, born in 1945.  When I teach his poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," I remind/teach my students of the historical events happening in 1945.  We talk about what it would be like to be a poet in Poland during the post-World War II part of the 20th century.  We talk about Communism and Iron Curtains.  It's beginning to feel like very ancient history.

The poem, however, still works beautifully.  You can read it here.  I love to use it to teach imagery and symbolism and how ambiguous it can all be--and how clear.

I've seen this poem broken into stanzas:  a stanza break after each line that mentions the mutilated world.  Interesting to think about how our lives have changed.  I've seen it broken into stanzas in print, in English 102 textbooks.

Now I'm more likely to learn about poets through reading blogs.  But once, not so long ago, I found out about poets because they appeared in anthologies.  I'd fall in love with a poem, teach the poem, and begin my research about the poet.  That research often involved going to the library to see what they had.  Ah, the days before the current incarnation of our Internet!

Now, like the rest of the literate, plugged-in world, I Google.  I zip from site to site.  If I find a poem that's got errors, how will I know?  I may not.

But I'm not here to lament the loss of that information.  I'm glad that more people have more access to poems.  I've been lucky in my access to good public libraries and good libraries connected to universities and libraries that can order me materials.  Most people are not so lucky.

Yesterday I met with some textbook publisher traveling reps, another moment where I thought about old media and new media and how life is changing.  I don't see book reps like I once did.  We talked about the ways that textbook publishing is changing, with eBooks and all sorts of other innovations coming at us.

The national book rep talked about new technology that they're developing.  It's so much more than an eBook, she said.  It's an eBook, but I can customize it, by putting in my own lectures (filmed by whom, I wonder) and links and such.  In the end, I've practically created an online course!

As a faculty member, this idea strikes terror in my heart, I said.  They looked at me and said, "Why?"

I said, "Well, what's to stop a school, then, from saying, 'Hey, thanks for creating this online course for us.  We won't be needing your teaching skills anymore.  But we'd be happy to pay you $10 an hour to grade all the papers.'"

One woman said, "Oh, I don't think a school would really do that, do you?"

But she said it with the same kind of hoping-against-hope tone in her voice that people get when they talk about global warming:  "It won't really get that bad, will it?  Some glaciers will melt, but not all of them, right?"

Oh, how I hate to disabuse the young in their hopefulness.  But I did.  I said, "Yes, I do think schools would do that.  I don't think it's much of a stretch to imagine at all."

And then we talked about the future of online courses and onground teaching and shook our heads over how much has changed and the pace of that change.  We talked about all the developments, both good and bad, that we never saw coming.

We talked about how we've tried to adapt.  But we admitted that it's tough to adapt when the environment changes so quickly and we're not sure where we're all headed.

In these kind of times, it's good to return to the poetry of Adam Zagajewski.  I tend to make the mistake of thinking that we're the first generation who has ever had to make these kind of adaptations, but of course, that's wrong.

Yesterday, my spouse and I watched Lonesome Dove, again.  We watched those 19th century cowboys driving the herd north and not for the first time, I thought about how quickly that landscape was to change.  Likewise with the 20th century:  the pace of change could be dizzying.

I suspect that at some point we'll look back at the dead ends of our own time period, and we'll shake our heads over how we got all worked up over the wrong things.  I suspect that e-textbooks will be one of those dead ends, a cultural artifact that some people will have spent a lot of time developing, only to see some newer something eclipse it.  I suspect that publishers will never make back their money on these efforts.

I worry that we may say the same thing over all of higher education.  The kerfuffle at UVa doesn't make me hopeful.

But I've been in despair before, only to see history make a turn towards brightness.  I love the way that Zagajewski closes his poem:

"Praise the mutilated world

and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns."

May the light continue to return!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy Summer Solstice!

Well, we have many hours to go before the true solstice, which I think arrives at nine minutes after 10 p.m., if I'm reading the chart on Wikipedia correctly.  Still, it's a great day to think about summer pleasures, which are all too fleeting, as are the pleasures of any season.

I'm sure that some of my more literary friends will be reading A Midsummer Night's Dream, but that won't be me.  Or you could read Chris Adrian's The Great Night, a fun riff on Shakespeare's play, which I read at the Autumnal Equinox, but it's stayed with me.  Will there be time for reading today?  If so, I'll probably return to Colson Whitehead's tale of zombie apocalypse, Zone One.

We could eat summer food:  grilled meats, melons, mangoes (oh, how I wish I could give you my extra mangoes), corn on the cob, and homemade ice cream for dessert.

We could celebrate summer by moving our bodies.  We could go for a morning walk or an evening stroll.  We could schedule an extra yoga session.  What would summer be without a swim?

It looks to be a rainy Summer Solstice here.  Maybe it will be a great afternoon for a nap while thunder rumbles in the distance.  At least we don't have to worry about Tropical Storm Chris, which rumbles very far in the distance.  May all our tropical storms this season pose a threat only to shipping--and may it be an easily avoided threat.

Or maybe we'll think about art projects.  I'm trying not to panic about the fact that Vacation Bible School starts on Monday.  I think I'm ready.  I've gotten good tips from people who teach very little children, tips about breaking projects into parts so that they don't zoom through too quickly.  I have a variety of ideas.  We'll have fun!

Maybe I'll make a collage this first day of summer (or is tomorrow really the first day of summer?).  Maybe I'll make a blueberry mango bread pudding with my surplus of mangoes and stale bread.  I'll work on my blog piece for the Living Lutheran site that's due tomorrow, the blog piece that considers John the Baptist, whose feast day we celebrate on Sunday--but maybe I'll also have time to play with a poem idea.

Tomorrow there will be time to send some poetry packets off in the mail.  Time to think about summer submissions!  But today is the day to think about summer pleasures and to make sure we take some time this summer to enjoy them.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Apocalyptic Reading

My inner (but never subsumed!) apocalypse girl has been directing the reading choices lately.  I started the week-end of our sailboat non-purchase in Jacksonville by reading Hilma Wolitzer's An Available Man.  On its face, it's not a novel of apocalypse.  Societies  do not collapse, nothing goes awry on a global scale.  But it is a story about a man who loses his wife to cancer.  He's not that old, but the horrors of dating again seem both poignant and apocalyptic to me.

Many times I was tempted to quit reading.  It reminded me of those books I loved as an adolescent:  folks living in the orbit of New York City who apparently have gobs of money but we don't see them work much.  How do they afford these vacations in the Hamptons?  When I was young, I assumed my grown up life would be just this way.  So far, not exactly.

From that book, which I zoomed through in just a few hours, I read Helen Simpson's In-Flight Entertainment.  It's a collection of short stories, most of them extremely short.  Many of them had an explicit apocalyptic theme, while all of them had a foreboding kind of tone, even if societal collapse wasn't imminent.  The story from which the collection takes its title deals with global warming and the implications of air travel across the globe.  "Diary of an Interesting Year" terrified me in the same way the nuclear war movies of my adolescence did.  It made me think of regular life and what would be lost if the glacial shelf collapsed, and water overtook the world.  It made me think of how life would be particularly difficult in a female body.  It made me want to get serious about target practice and use of a gun.

I'm currently reading Colson Whitehead's Zone One, a zombie apocalypse kind of book.  But along the way, there's lots of musing about life just before the zombie apocalypse (our current day) and life in the 1970's.  It, too, deals with the myth of New York City, but in such a different way than Wolitzer does.  Whitehead realizes that there are many myths of New York City, and he deftly weaves them together.

Of course, I can't read nothing but apocalypse.  I also read The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds.  I love its premise, that maybe we don't need to do some of the impossible sounding activities we've been told we must do to be healthy.  Now, to lose much weight, yes, we may need to make a more strenuous effort.  But to improve our health actually takes very little, in terms of exertion that hurts.  If you go here, you can find links to two delightful interviews that aired on NPR, plus you can read an excerpt.

I also scanned Dr. Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Happiness, which didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but it's good to be reminded of the importance of fighting against a doomed outlook, which is one of the risks of descending into apocalyptic reading.  Weil gives all sorts of suggestions and concludes the book with an 8 week program for moving toward emotional health. 

How I miss the summers of my youth, where I had long days to lose myself in good books.  But I'll take the smaller scraps of time, even while longing for whole weeks or months.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Of Clean Drains and Failed Food Journals--with Poem!

It's a strange day to be at work.  Faculty are off for two weeks, but I need to be here for a variety of reasons.  Later today, I'll have to track down the faculty who haven't turned in grades or who don't know that they had problems with their grades.

They are cleaning out the drains or doing something that's making strange smells.  Why do I think it's drain cleaning?  Because of the vans with signs that declare the company's skill at drain cleaning that are parked outside my office  and because of the snaking tubes and because of the slight sewery smell that's in the air. 

I'm trying hard not to see it as a negative sign.  It's good to have clean drains, even if one must tolerate the odor of sewage in the morning.

I expect that at any moment they'll start testing the fire alarms.

Well, at least they didn't do this when classes were in session.  Then, not only would I have had the strange sewery smells, but all sorts of complaints from people.

If only I had a tenth of the power that people seem to think I have!

I've fallen away from the power of keeping a food journal.  I've had mixed success with this process through my life.

I've been thinking about the idea of food journals because of this post of Kathleen's.  She has learned many lessons from a recent encounter with cinnamon rolls and wine, including this important one:  "Do not think that just writing stuff down will help you resist temptation."

It reminded me of a poem I wrote years ago after a time of failure in keeping a food journal.  I don't think it's one of my best poems, but it's amusing.  So I offer it not as evidence of my skill as a poet, but as something to bring a smile to your Monday:


Useless for a writer to keep a food journal.
I understand the principles behind the practice:
accountability to the page will force
me to make the right food choices.
Well, I have plenty of experience in avoiding
that judgmental gaze which just provokes
the opposite reaction in me:
“Do you really think you should be eating that?”
No, you’re right, I think the portion entirely too small.
Give me a triple serving.

Perhaps we chronicle our eating to gain
insight into why we eat. I try
to mark my motivation. Three pages
later I’ve not only analyzed my current mood,
but my entire history of my self-medication,
my relationship to that particular morsel,
year by year, bite by bite.
I also write about its symbolic possibilities,
the metaphors and meanings.  I sketch
poem possibilities and how the food might function
in a piece of fiction.

Worse yet, I find myself eating to write.
I look forward to returning to the page
after every meal, every snack.
I fill one notebook in a week
and quit this chronicle.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Kicking Nixon Around Some More

Here we are, the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.  Woodward and Bernstein have returned to the subject in this piece for The Washington Post where they argue that Nixon was even worse than we thought, and they discuss all the various wars that Nixon launched on various aspects of society.  They quote Nixon:  “'Always remember,' he said, 'others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.'”  Woodward and Bernstein conclude, "His hatred had brought about his downfall. Nixon apparently grasped this insight, but it was too late. He had already destroyed himself."

In many ways, I found Marc Fisher's story in The Washington Post more compelling.  He wrestles with the question of whether or not Watergate destroyed our trust in the government or proved that the system of checks and balances actually works.  He talks about how the meaning of the scandal has morphed over time.  He includes fascinating discussion about how it's taught in schools:  “'On a practical level, Watergate has really receded as a topic that people teach,' says Steve Armstrong, vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies and supervisor of social studies for the West Hartford, Conn., school system. 'I’m 59, so Watergate is huge to me, but anything that old is ancient history for young people. For many young teachers, Watergate is just one event among many of this nature.'”

It's interesting to think about how more modern scandals have revolved around sexual misconduct, but Watergate involved crimes that seem more menacing, even from a 40 year distance.  And here's the question that really resonates for me:  "Why did the president and his staff, coasting toward easy reelection, commence a campaign of dirty tricks?" (from the Fisher story).

Woodward and Bernstein would answer that Nixon always behaved this way:  "Long before the Watergate break-in, gumshoeing, burglary, wiretapping and political sabotage had become a way of life in the Nixon White House."  But here's the question for which I can find no easy answer:  did Nixon begin life as a bitter, paranoid person who tried to destroy his enemies--and he thought of almost everyone as an enemy--or did his life's circumstances transform him into this Watergate man?

I often say that Watergate is my first political memory, not the break-in, but the events of the summer of 1974, when Nixon resigned.  I am surrounded by people who believe in conspiracies of all kinds, but the Watergate events formed my consciousness early and made me convinced that it's hard to maintain a cover-up.  I tend not to believe in conspiracies because I don't have that high a view of human nature.

There's a woman at work who really believes that George Bush and a few people from his inner circle were directly responsible for the events of September 11.  The actions that would have had to happen for this to be true boggle my mind.  The administration didn't show that level of competence, skill, and precision anywhere else--do we really believe it's possible in the Sept. 11 arena?

And even if we do believe it's possible, do we really believe that those actions could be kept hidden for very long?  Some people do.  I do not.

But I digress.  Back to my more compelling question:  was Nixon always this way?

It's a variation of a question that has always haunted me:  can a person with integrity work for a corrupt institution and retain one's integrity?  Does it depend on the level of the corruption, the strength of the moral core of the person?  Or the flip side of the question:  can a corrupt person or two ruin the integrity of an upright institution?

But here's what I really want to know:  can I retain my sunny, optimistic nature if I'm surrounded by gloomy people?  Will I change them or will they change me? 

I also find myself haunted by the idea that Nixon, as awful as he was in some arenas, was also groundbreakingly trailblazing in others.  Nixon, the man who went to Communist China.  Nixon, the man who brought us the Environmental Protection Agency.  Nixon, who perhaps most changed my life by his Title IX actions, which was about far more than sports:  "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity."

How did that man coexist in the body of the man we hear in the White House tapes spewing hatred of all kinds?

These are not the questions that most people ponder when they think about Watergate. I know that most people don't think about Watergate at all anymore.

It's startling to me to think about how old the Watergate generation is getting to be.  As they die off, will we ponder these anniversaries at all?  As we move to 40th anniversaries of other scandals, I suspect only a few of us will.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

In Which I Celebrate Bloomsday by Thinking About My Linked Short Stories Project

James Joyce fans know that today is Bloomsday.  Fans of this blog know that I've written about Bloomsday before, here and here.  I will not be doing anything Joycean or even Irish today.  But I have spent the week leading up to Bloomsday writing fiction and thinking about my collection of linked stories.

Last night, I started looking at all the stories with a more critical eye, looking at them to see how they work together.  I had been worried that all the characters sounded the same, but I think that will be less of a problem than I thought.  My characters do all sound like white, middle-class people, but they are white, middle-class people so I think that's O.K.  There's a grandmother who sounds more distinctively Southern.  I will write a story that takes place almost 60 years into the future, but I will probably just keep the characters sounding like their ancestors.

Here's one worry that I do have.  I had planned to use some stories that I wrote in a time before I realized I was going to create a linked collection.  Some of the short stories have similar themes, similar images, similar characters.  For example, in two separate stories, I have two different characters who are haunted by the possibility of nuclear war.  I could make the argument that because both characters are adolescents in 1983, so it's conceivable that they'd both have similar fears and nightmares.

But I fear that a larger problem is that I have too many characters who are Women's Studies majors.  I could make changes so that only one of them is a Women's Studies major, I suppose.  Or I could take the same approach that I do with the nuclear stuff:  it's a time when Women's Studies was fairly new and it's not impossible that two characters who are unrelated in two different stories might be Women's Studies majors.

Or maybe it's good to have these threads weaving through the stories.  Maybe these threads make the collection more linked, in a way that they wouldn't feel linked if it was just linked by characters who show up in more than one story.

Maybe it's time to reread Joyce, who not only has the same characters making appearances throughout his work, but who also has themes and images appearing and reappearing.  How many characters in Joyce sing?  How many tenors make appearances throughout all of Joyce's work?  Statistically, were there really that many tenors in Dublin?  How many drunken men abandon families throughout Joyce?

And yes, I did my thesis on Joyce, so I do understand the demographics:  there were a lot of drunken men abandoning fathers during the time of Joyce.  Still, if you read all of Joyce during one intense grad school class, you realize that there's more than simple demographics at work in Joyce.

I need to go back to linked short story collections that I have loved to help sort out another issue:  in which order should stories go?  Chronologically?  Some sort of circling/spiraling?

I love the way that Joyce ends Dubliners, which isn't as tightly linked a short story collection as others I have loved.  I love the story "The Dead," which ends Dubliners, and serves as a coda, although it also works well as a stand-alone story.  Will I have a penultimate story?  Hmm.  One of my stories is longer and seems to contain all the themes and symbols of the others--and those characters so far are rarely appearing in the other stories that I've written.  It's chronologically early in the cycle, but maybe I'll save it for last.

So, I began the morning thinking I wouldn't really be doing anything anything to celebrate Bloomsday or doing anything Joycean--and here I am, hours later, thinking I might have solved a thorny problem in my linked collection.  And how did I do it?  By thinking about Dubliners.  Thank you, James Joyce!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Vision Boards

I had a wonderful fiction lunch yesterday:  my friend and I read each other's short stories after we ate a healthy lunch of soup and salad.  We also talked about our hopes for the future, both in terms of our own writing and what we hope for the future of publishing.

I had a moment of inspiration earlier in the day.  After finishing my short story, I went to spin class (well, actually, it was me and my iPod on a spin bike).  I had an inspiration for short story set in the future, something interplanetary, something very Bradburyesque (The Martian Chronicles, not Dandelion Wine).  My linked short stories are now working into the third generation of characters.  I thought I wouldn't write stories about the third generation, but maybe I will.

In the afternoon, as we waited for it to be time to go to graduation, we talked to a colleague who creates vision boards.  We talked about our hopes for the future.

At graduation, the graduation speaker also talked about vision boards.  What are the odds?  I feel the universe is trying to tell me something.

Long time readers of this blog will say, "Well, yes, you've played with these ideas on a smaller scale already" (go here and here to see examples).  But what if I had a big board?  What images might find their way there?

What image represents poet laureate?  When I dream of a book with a spine, am I dreaming of a poetry collection, a memoir, or a set of linked short stories?  (hint:  all 3).  What image represents a set of bills that I can pay even if my job vanishes?

Soon, I'll have a pile of magazines--I'm collecting them for Vacation Bible School.  After VBS, I'll create a vision board.

Who knows?  Maybe I'll have a vision board party--creativity and dreaming of the future have often been more fun for me when done in a group.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hungry Hearts

--Oh, I knew better.  But I listened to Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" anyway.  And now I'm haunted by the first stanza:

"Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going"

--I find myself thinking about wrong turns.  I find myself trying to remember when I last bought new tires.  How far could I go in a little Toyota Corolla?

--I also find myself thinking of different communities, of monks and other monastics.  Do monks dream of running away, even though they've taken a vow of community and rootedness to place?  I wrote a bit about this on my theology blog post today.

--I love the title of that post:  "Washing Dishes with Monks."  But I know I love it because I have monastic leanings.  Would non-monk-groupies love it too?

--Long ago, I was grocery shopping with my Jacksonville friend who has known me for a very long time.  We were in the bread section, and I was trying to help him choose a healthier bread.  I pulled out one made by a monastery.  He waved it away.  He said, "If it's made by monks, Kristin must like it."

--But it was a healthier bread!

--Yesterday was one of those tough days when I felt that every aspect of my life was off kilter.  I felt unhappy in every area.  I wanted to run away.  I wanted a different coastline, preferably one a continent away.  Or maybe on a different continent!  How long would it take to drive to South America?

--If Che Guevara could tour South America on a rickety motorcycle, surely my sturdy Toyota Corolla could make the trip.  Didn't Che Guevara tour South America on a rickety motorcycle?  Indeed, Che Guevara's motorcycle voyage set him on a different quest, launched him down that radical road.

--Today is Che Guevara's birthday.  If you were looking for a meditation on him, go here or here.

--I've been thinking about the rickety houses we repaired.  I've been thinking about the rickety sailboat.  I've been thinking about the deeper dreams they represent, the hungers that drive the yearnings towards restoration.

--I work in the hungry heart industry.  Today, another crop of students graduates from our school.  Will their yearnings be fulfilled?

--And back my brain circles to my own yearnings, which likely aren't symbolized by houses/boats in need of repair.  Those are the dreams of my spouse, ancillary dreams to my own.

--Monk or Marxist?  That might be my shorthand.

--Marxists teach me the value of dreaming the impossible.  But I'm wary of what happens when the impossible takes longer than I expect.  I know the tragedy of the Marxist trajectory that ends in revolutions that replicate what already existed.

--From the monks (and the wider religious communities), I learn the value of going through the motions, even when the practices feel hollow.  So, yesterday, I worked on a short story, even though I was convinced it was horrid.  I spent quality time with colleagues and friends, people who reminded me of my purpose on the planet.  I ate quality food with comfort value but not too many calories.  I went to spin class to quiet my mind by pumping my legs.

--This morning, my story doesn't seem horrid.  My work life seems worthwhile, despite its occasional theatre of the absurd qualities.  My relationships seem salvageable.

--One of life's most important lessons:  the value of sleep, the value of waiting a day or a week before hitting the road.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sailboats, Funnels, and Websites

I thought I might have a post about a sailboat--sometimes week-ends go the way you expected, while other times, they don't.

We went to Jacksonville where one of our oldest college friends lives.  He has a condo in a complex that has a dock with boat slips.  One of his fellow condo members has a sailboat, a small Bayliner Buccaneer.  It needs a significant amount of work.  We thought she might be ready to part with it.

I may post pictures at some point.  You'll say that the boat is in such bad shape that we've lost our minds to even consider it.  But it can stay at the boat slip for free, and my spouse and our friend have dreams of restoring it.  I have no such dreams, but I'd like to learn to sail.

I have a vision that it might be easier to learn to sail on a boat that's in such bad shape.  I have a vision that I won't be so terrified that we'll ruin the boat; it's already ruined.

Of course, it may scar me indelibly.  When we bought trashed houses and restored them, I had a glimpse into all the ways a house could go terribly wrong.  Many glimpses, from aluminum wiring, to faulty plumbing, to rotting parts . . . on and on I could go.  Most people live in their houses with no idea of all the ways a house can hurt.

So, will we own a boat?  Stay tuned.  The story isn't finished yet.  We had a fun week-end thinking about it.  I enjoyed sitting on the boat, even though it was moored to the boat slip.  I saw a family of blue herons in the largest pine tree.  All week-end, they flew in and out, sometimes with food in their beaks for the babies.  They made quite a squawking noise.  I tried to decide if their presence was a good omen or a warning. 

While we waited to hear whether or not our offer would be accepted (we're still waiting), we went to the Folkston Funnel, a spot in southern Georgia where almost every train entering and leaving Florida passes through.  We watched the trains and went to the train museum, which was more fun than it might sound.  Along the way, we ate breakfast at a great cafe and talked to the owner, who had never owned a restaurant, but she knew she liked the food.  The news is full of business failures--it was great to hear from someone who's doing well.  We stopped by the Okeefenokee Swamp, which is more like a forest than a mucky place.

While I was away, my poem "Kitchen Remodels" appeared on Verse DailyI can't figure out a way to get a link to me directly, so you'll have to go to the Archives section and look for my poem/name, which appeared on Sunday, June 10.  Thrilling!  Thanks to all of you who tweeted and liked the page on Facebook.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Collage with Fabric and Fiber

At our recent Create in Me retreat, I hosted a drop in station.  I had fabrics and yarns--textures of all kinds.

My idea was that people would create scarves or necklaces. 

People had a great time playing with possibilities.

I wasn't feeling inspired to create a scarf.  I wanted to collage.  But I had trouble figuring out the best way to arrange the images.  We had created larger collages earlier in the retreat:

I felt like I didn't have enough material for a large collage like this one:

In the end, I glued my pictures and words into a shoebox lid.  But I didn't like the way it looked (and I don't have a before picture). 

So, I added some yarn and wrapped the whole thing in glittery fabric.

I've experimented with collage, and I've experimented with lots of fiber art projects.  As far as I can recall, this project is the first where I've combined the two.  I'm calling it a success; in fact, I like the finished project so much that I hung it in my office.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sailboat or RV?

Yesterday's post made me think about my dream of taking off in an RV and travelling west.  I love the idea of having my house along with me, seeing the sights, stopping at any attraction that intrigued me.  The RV as modern covered wagon!

My spouse loves the idea of taking off in a sailboat.  I like that idea too, but I know less about sailing.  Driving an RV seems similar enough to other kinds of driving.  Sailing seems so different.

But I do love the idea of a smaller space, a travelling existence.  I love the idea of seeing parts of the world that others won't get to see.

My younger self wanted to backpack the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, or to ride my bicycle from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  Now I like the idea of a more comfortable bed, a less physically demanding experience.

Right now, I'm lucky to have a job that pays well, so I'll carry on in that existence.  I'll put money away, because I can't count on always having that job, and I'm not optimistic about the future of full-time jobs for people with Ph.D.s in English.  When I need a mental vacation, I'll daydream of journeys, whether under sail or via wheels.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Homes on the Range

We have cancelled our Netflix subscription.  I got tired of those red packets, those movies that got old while waiting for me to have a chance to watch them.  I think my spouse finally watched every Western in their catalogue, and he was having trouble finding anything else to watch.

I miss it occasionally.  I don't often think ahead, and thus, sometimes we have a rainy afternoon where a movie would be nice.  Luckily, we have a fairly large collection of VHS tapes and DVDs.

That's how we came to be watching Open Range on Memorial Day week-end, even though we'd seen it before.  It started playing with the director's commentary on, and Kevin Costner was so fascinating that not only did we listen all the way through the commentary, we also watched a short documentary that came on the bonus DVD.

It's always interesting to hear how directors put together movies; I'm a sucker for those kind of insights.  Any creative process, even if it's one I'm unlikely to participate in, intrigues me.  But I found myself even more interested in the history behind the movie.

In an early shot of the cowboys crossing the river, Kevin Costner talked about all the people who likely drowned as they crossed similar rivers, people just swept away.  And we'll never know who they are.

He talked about the immigrants who came to settle the west.  He observed that they were thinking less about themselves and more about 4-5 generations out.  They knew that they were taking on a rough life, but they hoped it would pay off for their descendents.

He pointed out how often towns were built in inconvenient places.  They weren't well thought out.  One person put up a house, and then someone else settled nearby because there was safety in numbers, and pretty soon, you've got a town.  Often, you've got a town in a place that's susceptible to weather (floods, especially), because people weren't thinking about that.

He pointed out how heavily the white people lived on the land.  Along the way of his commentary, I was reminded of how much research Kevin Costner has done on the American west.  I've never seen Dances with Wolves.  Now I might be tempted.

There's more than one shot of white picket fence.  Costner points out that you fence something in when you're not really sure that you own it.  He pointed out how the white people moved west and began fencing everything in, and soon, a way of life, driving cattle from Canada to Mexico (or the reverse) was gone.

His commentary reminded me of Larry McMurtry, another master of the American west.  My spouse and I both LOVE Lonesome Dove.  In fact, we might have watched it instead of Open Range, if we had felt we had more time.

McMurtry has also devoted much of his nonfiction writing to exploring the American west.  One of my favorites is Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.  He reminds us:  "The myth of the American cowboy was born of a brief twenty years' activity just before railroads criss-crossed the continent north-south and east-west, making the slow movement of livestock impractical"  (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, page 50).  In just 20 years, a way of life came into being and passed away. 

We tend to think that we're the first generation to deal with a dizzying pace of change, but I suspect that most every generation would tell you that the change that they must deal with is more than any other generation has ever had to bear.  It's truly astonishing to think of how the land west of the Mississippi River changed from 1860 to 1900.  It both makes me sad and gives me hope for our own age.  Humans are tougher than we give ourselves credit for being.  If we could settle that land in 40 short years (and yes, I know that Native Americans would tell a different story), we can survive the hard times stalking our country now.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Natasha Trethewey: Poet Laureate

I am SO thrilled to hear that Natasha Trethewey will be our next poet laureate.  How many ways am I thrilled?  Let's see, she's my age, 46, when the last several poet laureates have been into their 80's.  Nothing wrong with being older, of course.  But how wonderful to have a younger poet laureate, my generation!  In fact, I think she's the youngest poet laureate ever.

Let us now play what I call the Norton Anthology game.  When I got my first Norton Anthology of American Lit, I looked at the birth years of all the living poets.  They had all been born long before me.  I suspect that now, there might be one or two born after me.  I'm not brave enough to look anymore.

But back to Natasha Trethewey.  Not only is she younger, but she's female.  She's biracial (her father was Caucasion, her mother African-American) and from the U.S. South.  Our first Southern poet laureate,  since Robert Penn Warren, unless you count Rita Dove, who has lived in the South for many years.

And she's a fabulous poet.  Breathtaking.  Native Guard is one of my all-time favorite books of poetry.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember my blog post about Natasha's Trethewey's February 2010 reading at Broward College.  I remember more for the question and answer period afterwards as for her reading, which was fabulous in and of itself.

I asked her how she put together her book Native Guard, which weaves poems of Civil War soldiers together so seamlessly with poems about her mother's death.  Here's what I wrote 2 years ago:
"She said that she was working on poems about her experience of growing up the child of a mixed race marriage in the South and on poems about the black soldiers, often forgotten and nameless, of the Civil War. She said she didn't realize at first that her book would also include poems about the loss of her mother.

She recounted an experience where she was running through a cemetery near her Georgia house, and she could almost hear ancient voices talking to her. She talked about the end of the poem, "Graveyard Blues," the couplet that talks about her mother's headstone. She talked about that poem coming to her in a rush, and that the end is a fiction, that she wrote it even as she realized that her mother had no headstone. She realized that her mother was just as lost and nameless as those black, Union soldiers. And thus, she realized how the poems all worked together."

Much as I love Natasha Trethewey, I wouldn't want to be the person who has to decide on the one person who should hold the post of poet laureate.  We live in an amazing poetry time.  It would be tough to decide on just one person to honor.

I pondered this fact as I read this article about Natasha Trethewey in The New York Times:

"In a phone interview explaining his choice James Billington, the librarian of Congress, said: 'We’re not necessarily on some kick to find a younger poet. The more I read of it, American poetry seems extremely rich in diversity, talent and freedom of expression, and she has a voice that is already original and accomplished. I have an affinity for American individuals who are absolutely unique, and I think that this is one.'

He first became aware of Ms. Trethewey (pronounced TRETH-eh-way) when she gave a reading at the National Book Festival in 2004: 'I admired the way she had a certain classical sound but also moved easily from traditional forms to free verse. And then when I began reading her poems for myself, that impression was just confirmed. It seemed very natural, all of a piece.' He added: 'I go to a fair number of poetry readings, and I’m not always motivated to go back and read the poems. But in her case I was.'

Indeed.  And now, maybe a whole nation will be inspired to read her poems.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Temperature at Which Paper Burns

Ray Bradbury died yesterday, after a rich, long life.  You may think of him as a sci-fi writer, but he was so much more.

In this post at the NPR website, Peter Sagal says, "Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury; they were the tripod (invasive, moving, with lasers) on which my science fiction education was built in the 1970s."

For me, it would be Clarke, Asimov, and Bradbury, and I liked Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury much better than Isaac Asimov, but Bradbury was my favorite of them all.  I haven't returned to those authors much, but ten years ago, I did read The Martian Chronicles again.  I found the collection just as awe inspiring and heart breaking as I did when I first read the book in my younger teen-age years.

Other sci-fi I checked out from the library.  I bought Ray Bradbury books.

To understand what this statement means, you must understand my teen-age economy.  I baby-sat, I saved my allowance, all to do my favorite thing:  to go to B. Dalton books and allow myself to buy anything I wanted.  I would go home with armloads of books.

I did the same thing at the library, but when I was younger, there was a magic to actually owning the books.  I was the kind of reader who consumed books and reread them again and again.  I made mental notes and wrote my own stories and wanted to do what my favorite authors did.

Ray Bradbury did so much, from creating imaginative works set on other planets, to writing plays and screenplays, to writing works of realism verging on nostalgia that remember his childhood hometown, to advice to other creative writers.

Now Bradbury would object to being called a sci-fi writer.  He considered Fahrenheit 451 (named when he called the fire department to find the temperature at which paper burns) his only sci-fi work.

I'm sure there will be future graduate students who return to his work and write dissertations that show how much of what he wrote about came to pass.  But his real accomplishment came in not letting the sci-fi part swamp the human part.

This story in The Washington Post includes this wonderful quote:  “'Bradbury took the conventions of the science-fiction genre — time travel, robots, space exploration — and made them signify beyond themselves, giving them a broader and more nuanced emotional appeal to general readers,' said William F. Touponce, a founder and former director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis."

Later, in college, I would discover feminist science fiction, and my world would change again.  But I'll always feel grateful to the guys, as I think of them; I mean both the generation of men who wrote the stories and the sci-fi geeks at my school who extolled their virtues.  I'm a sucker for a book recommendation; if you extol the wonders of a book, I'll likely pick it up.

I still enjoy a good sci-fi book, although my tastes do run to dystopian fiction:  life after the apocalypse.  The Martian Chronicles fits that bill nicely.

It's also perhaps the first book of linked short stories that I ever read.  I was fascinated with that form right from the start, and the fiction project I'm working on now is a book of linked stories.  That form--linked short stories (no matter how tenuous the link)--is so flexible and adaptable.  At the time, I remember being both puzzled and intrigued as I realized that the stories could stand alone--indeed, many of them had been published as stand-alone stories in magazines, but that they worked well together.

I was also amazed at Bradbury's ability to create a masterful short story, a masterful novel, whatever he attempted to do.  Even at a young age, I realized that few writers have the skills to work masterfully across genres.

Bradbury is one of those writers who made me want to be a writer.  I have this vision of Ray Bradbury and Adrienne Rich in Heaven--what a rich conversation they would have.  Are they bothered by Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson who are off making music in that corner?  Or are they all singing, making new celestial songs that we can hear, as if a distant star sent music back to us?

Here are some Bradbury quotes to inspire you to be the best creative person you can be:

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”

“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”

“First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”

“I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My Not So Big Job Announcement

Some day, I dream of having a really big job announcement:  a wonderful teaching position in an MFA program or being the creator of a program that will infuse more creativity into seminary/divinity studies or some community program where I'll bring the joy of creativity or spirituality (or both!) into the lives of regular people.  Some day, I'll be telling you about the forthcoming publication of a book with a spine that I wrote.

Today, my announcement is much smaller.  Today, I let you know that I'm the Arts and Crafts director for this year's Vacation Bible School.  I'm both excited and terrified.

One of my spin class buddies advised me to give them what they don't get at home: glue and glitter. They get crayons, but not glitter.

I joked that if I give them glitter, I'll never be allowed to be arts and crafts director again.

I waited a long time before volunteering for the position. Our pastor kept sending out lists of available positions. I wanted the arts and crafts director position, but I thought that surely someone else would want it, and I didn't want to be too greedy.
Finally, after several weeks I volunteered, but offered to step aside if anyone else really wanted it. We are in one of those VBS years where we barely have enough people to do everything, so my volunteering was greeted with relief.

We buy one of those pre-packaged VBS kits, and this year, we're not using the one from the Lutheran publishing house. It was chosen by the woman who was going to be the VBS director before life intervened and she had to let go of that responsibility. The kit that we bought doesn't come with very much--oh no, they want you to buy more, more, more.  What a racket.

We will not be buying the arts and crafts projects and kits from them. I looked at the projects that they offer, and they baffle me. They're more science fair than glue and glitter.
We will be making noisemakers, because my husband will be doing fun things with drums and noisemakers, and we don't already have enough of those. We will decorate t-shirts. We will make butterflies or empty tomb gardens or other things to remind us of Christ's resurrection. We will do things with paper mosaics, perhaps. Maybe we'll collage if I get enough old magazines.

My fear is that I have twenty minutes--what if the projects take too much time? What if they don't take enough time?

And then there's the fear that lurks beneath: what if the kids think the projects are stupid? And by extension, what if they think I'm stupid?

Creative folks everywhere are probably familiar with fears that run along these lines: what if I can't pull off what I'm attempting to do? What if I'm just stupid? What if I never have a good idea? What if I think I'm brilliant but everyone else knows I'm not?

I'm hoping that if I approach each night with joy and enthusiasm, it will all be just fine.  I'm sure it will.  I'm always amazed at how much the kids love Vacation Bible School, no matter what we do.  To me, it feels too much like real school, with classes and a schedule that keeps them moving from activity to activity and food that's rather institutional.  But children love it.  And so we do it.  And each year, we do it again.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Radiant Ways of Margaret Drabble

Today is the birthday of Margaret Drabble--how I have loved Margaret Drabble!

I first read her slim book, The Millstone, in a grad school course on the modern British novel.  Most of the books in that course seemed modern, in comparison to the Victorian Literature which also consumed me, but also curiously not modern.  The Millstone was no exception.

The book has a narrator who's deeply conflicted about sex:  modern or not modern or post-modern?  She decides to have a child out of wedlock, which shocks her sister:  modern or not modern or post-modern?   She tries not to tell many people about her pregnancy, so that she can keep plowing through grad school studies and doing what she considers to be important work in the field of literary criticism:  modern or not modern or post-modern?

The language seems rooted in the early 1960's, but the issues weren't unfamiliar to us back in the late 80's, when we took the class.  Some of them seemed just as daunting, if not more so:  work/family/lifestyle choices still stymie so many of us.

I liked Drabble's writing, so when I saw a copy of The Radiant Way at the remainders table in a mall bookstore, I bought it.  What a revelation!  It continues to be one of my favorite books.  It depicts the 80's in a realistic way that still takes my breath away.  Yet, Drabble is also doing fun things with figurative language.  And what a great trio of characters.  This book continues Drabble's exploration of the issues that both delight and bedevil modern women.

I don't always love her more recent novels, although I did love The Sea Lady.  Perhaps it's because her later novels explore what it means to be a woman growing older in our society, and those issues terrify me--and her books don't always offer comfort.  Most of us will not escape the ravages of age, no matter how much money we have.  Even if we travel through the landscape relatively unscathed, the ones we love or the ones to whom we have obligations, will not be so lucky.

The other day I wandered through the public library and found myself saying, "There's nothing here that I want to read."  Maybe it's time to return to my own library.  I've bought books for just this day.  Maybe it's time to return to The Radiant Way--and then the sequels!

Monday, June 4, 2012

My Third Skin Cancer--in Poem Form!

Yesterday I wrote this post about my third skin cancer, complete with photo (non-gruesome since my skin cancer is quite small).  I wrote about the genesis of a poem coming to me in the parking lot of the dermatologist when I was done.  Here's the original that inspired my poem, at least in the rhythm of the first line.

My Last Duchess

By Robert Browning

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
'Frà Pandolf' by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say 'Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much,' or, 'Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:' such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart – how shall I say – too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace - all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men - good! but thanked
Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech - (which I have not) - to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, 'Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark' - and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
- E'en that would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

I copied the poem into a Word document and then separated it chunk by chunk to make it less intimidating.  And then, line by line, I wrote my version.  I even tried to keep a rhyme scheme in the lines where a rhyme scheme exists.

I had fun writing it, but I'm not sure that I'll do much more than post it here.  But then again, who knows?

My Third Cancer

That’s my third cancer, lurking near my neck,

Looking as if it were harmless. I call
This spot a harmless one: I spent years
Out in the sun, and now I’m marked.
Feel free to observe closely. I said
“Harmless” by design, for even
Strangers picture scars and scalpels,
As they look (once I’ve pointed
Out my scars, this one here, and here, and now here)
And seemed they would ask me, if not rude,
How such a scar came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus.
Sir, ‘twas not
The way it once was, sunscreens applied
Before we left the house: perhaps
It was the childhood summers spent outside or poolside
Sunning smeared with baby oil and tracking
Time spent on each side for an even tan: such stuff
Was normal, we thought, and cause enough
For loving summers outside. We had
A view—how shall I say?—of beauty bronzed
And gold; we loved that glow,
The burnished skin, and for it, we’d do anything.
Sir, ‘twas all one! A teenage tan,
A noonday run across the decades’ span,
A careless afternoon at the beach that led to sunburn
Or a tanning bed, no lessons learned
From every exposure – all and each
We loved because we thought it made us look healthy
Or , at least. We approved, -- good! But approved
All efforts -- it seems strange now-- as if we’d escape
The ravages of the radiation of the sun’s rays
Like our ancestors did. Do you forget we thought
We had an ozone layer? Even had we known
The results -- (which we did not) -- the cancers
Dotting our bodies, the age spots
Down the road; possible damage
To our eyes -- yes if we’d known,
We’d have ignored the facts or assumed
That we would be the exception, not the rule
-- E’en then we’d have needed sunscreen; which I choose
Never to use. Oh, sir, I spray occasionally, no doubt,
During the rare beach outing, but who doesn’t
Sporadically? If out, do I go to the store?
I do not. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll gather
Our picnic together. I repeat
We’ll have a shelter at the park along with trees
So that we can eat and enjoy the breeze
Although along with bugspray we’ll take this lotion,
With an SPF of 70, our modern magic potion,
Allowing us to go outside. OK, we’ll go
To the park together, sir. Notice, though,
My shirt of woven mesh, my predilection,
Which in any weather gives protection!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

My Third Skin Cancer

First, let me stress that my 3 skin cancers have all been the non-life-threatening kind.  No melanomas yet.  I also feel lucky that they haven't been on my face.  I've had 2 on my left arm, the arm that hung out of the window for years while I drove under a relentless Southern sun.  And now, a basal cell cancer on my collarbone, also on the left.

There it is in the picture above, between pearl and pencil eraser.  It first appeared a few months ago.  I know the drill:  any new, mole-like thing deserves a visit to the dermatologist.  It seemed to grow, but it didn't get crusty and/or bloody.  I've had people tell me not to worry, that it's just some kind of tag-like thing, that I can expect these as I age.

I ignored these people.  Still, it was a bit of a shock when the dermatologist said, "Yep, that's a basal cell cancer."

I'm used to my dermatologist saying things like "Nope, that's a freckle."  "Nope that's just an age spot."

But occasionally, the dermatologist takes things off my skin, sends them off to be biopsied, and I come back for a bit more scraping.  As recurring medical conditions go, I could have worse problems.

It's interesting to me to see people's reactions.  Some people are horrified at the idea of a cancer of any kind.  Even if I explain that it's not life threatening, I can still see the pity on their faces.

But frankly, I've been on the lookout for skin cancer my whole life.  I'm the first generation to grow up aware of the lack of an ozone layer.  And yes, I spent years tanning anyway.

Before that, I spent my childhood being sent outside to play.  My mom was a big believer in the values of fresh air and sunshine.

They say that one of the predictors of skin cancer is a blistering sunburn.  I can't even count the number of times I've had a blistering sunburn.  And then there are all the sunburns that didn't blister . . .

When my dermatologist first met me, he said, "Why are you living here?"  For a moment, my mind reeled at the existential questions in the dermatologist question.

But of course, he was wondering why I live in a place that placed me at such risk of high exposure to dangerous UV rays.  The whole planet poses that kind of risk, of course, but the closer we get to the equator, the more days of dangerous sunshine we'll likely experience.

And I'm blonde and fair-skinned and freckled. 

So, the fact that I get skin cancers shouldn't exactly surprise anybody.  And yet, it's still a bit of a shock each time I find out that I have one.

Not so much of a shock that I can't write poems.  Tomorrow, I'll share my new poem that's based on Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess."  In case you want to play along, I've pasted the Robert Browning poem below.  My first bit came to me in the parking lot after my visit with the dermatologist: 

"That’s my third cancer, lurking near my neck,"

My Last Duchess

By Robert Browning

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive. I call

That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will't please you sit and look at her? I said

'Frà Pandolf' by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

How such a glance came there; so, not the first

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not

Her husband's presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps

Frà Pandolf chanced to say 'Her mantle laps

Over my lady's wrist too much,' or, 'Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half-flush that dies along her throat:' such stuff

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy. She had

A heart – how shall I say – too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace - all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men - good! but thanked

Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill

In speech - (which I have not) - to make your will

Quite clear to such an one, and say, 'Just this

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,

Or there exceed the mark' - and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,

- E'en that would be some stooping; and I choose

Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet

The company below, then. I repeat,

The Count your master's known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretence

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!


Come back tomorrow for the rest of my poem!