Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Waiting for Penelope, Waiting for John Keating

Yesterday, I had the kind of work day that contained both the parts of my job that I hate the most and the part that I love the most--yes, all in one day.

I spent much of the day wrestling with the Fall schedule.  We don't have as many computer classrooms as we need, and more and more of our faculty would like to have their classes in a computer classroom.  So, I'm always bargaining and looking for solutions, doing work and undoing it only to redo it again.  Not for the first time have I thought of Penelope as I've done this work.  Weave, unweave, weave again.  It's maddening, and even more so, as I contemplate simple technological solutions to this problem.  We have lots of computers just lying around.  Why can't we have more computer classrooms?  Or better yet, just issue each student an iPad or a netbook when they come to school.  Grr.

I often think of absurdist theatre on days like yesterday, but today, as I jogged down the Broadwalk by Hollywood Beach, "The Time Warp" came on my iPod Shuffle. Office as Rocky Horror Picture Show--that idea makes a certain amount of sense too. Madness takes its toll indeed!  I've written more about this idea in this post on my theology blog.

At some point during the day, news about the Harkin report came out (you can read the story here or just look at the graphs in this story to be properly horrified).  I work at a for-profit school, the subject of Harkin's investigation.  His report didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, but I felt a bit like a naive character who realizes that she's actually been working for the mob--it's not an original movie, is it?  For the life of me, I can't come up with a specific title.

At the end of the day, I got to remember that part of my work does involve teaching and inspiring student brains.  I'd much rather be John Keating in Dead Poets Society than some dupe in a gangster movie. 

I met with some members of the Advertising/Graphic Design/Web Design department.  We strategized ways to infuse creative writing into the curriculum.  We talked about all sorts of projects.  I felt sleepy parts of my brain perk back up.  I'll be writing more about this process as it progresses.

I've talked to many a creative writer who dreams of teaching traditional classes to writing students--but we might be missing all sorts of opportunities by dreaming so narrowly.  The faculty members yesterday told me that there are more opportunities for people who can write than for people who do design--or was  it that they're paid more?  I heard about all sorts of opportunities for people who can blog and tweet and produce content quickly.

Of course, I'd like to be paid to blog about whatever I want to write about.  And that might not be so outside the reach of possibility as I once thought.  And there are other ways that my blogging skills might translate into money.

It's an interesting idea--how can writing poetry teach us to compress our thoughts so that we're better at tweeting for a living?  How can writing a blog prepare us for writing ad copy or newsletter articles?  I can hear some people snort about selling out.  But some of us might need some post-academic work.

I spend my days surrounded by people who don't have much of a post-academic imagination.  It was nice to spend time with other colleagues who are so happy to enlist my creative writing skills to help their students.  It was grand to strategize new possibilities for ways to drench classes with those opportunities for learning.  We talked about projects that stretched across several classes, projects that would enrich students on multiple levels.

It's good to remember, especially on days when the Senate points out the unsavory practices of parts of higher ed, that we do good work here on the ground.  I'll let others argue about whether or not the good work that we do is worth the cost that students pay and the loans that they shoulder.  A large part of my job is to ensure that once they've decided to make the investment that they get something of worth and value.

How wonderful to be with colleagues who say, "Our students need poetry."  I don't hear that often enough.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Anxiety Dreams

Last night was full of anxiety dreams, including the classic "I'm taking a class, and I haven't been remembering to go to class!"  In last night's dream, it was a graduate level class, so at least I'm making some progress.  Usually those dreams revolve around undergraduate classes, often Math, and it's exam time.

So, am I anxious?  Or do my anxiety dreams come from watching the Olympics all day?  Or having the Olympics on in the background?  Nothing like the Olympics to make me feel like I've wasted my life.

I'm grateful to be a poet.  I don't have to wait 4 years to try to do what no one has ever done before.  If I'm injured, I can write anyway.  Of course, poets rarely capture the attention of the world the way that Olympians do, but usually I don't mind.  That spotlight is awfully fierce.  Let me work away from the limelight.

Maybe I'm having anxiety dreams because this week-end, I read/scanned Cheryl Strayed's Wild.  Her tale of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was both inspiring and exhausting.  The part that exhausted me most was the parts of the narrative that described how she came to be hiking the trail:  that self-destructive streak after her mother's death.  I almost didn't make it to the better parts of the book.

Everyone at work last week seemed to be in different stages of succumbing to a cold, so maybe I'm fighting off something.  Or maybe I'm anxious because it's almost August, and it's hard for me to believe how the year zips by.  Or maybe it's because so many parts of the country are experiencing such severe drought right now; those pictures of crops withered in the field pierce my heart.  I'm not that many generations removed from my family's farming days. 

So we carry on, under a pitiless sun, unsure of what the future holds.  We watch Olympic athletes in a distant city competing under a merciless rain (oh, those poor female cyclists!).  We read of the exploits of others and hope for redemption for all.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Apocalypse Gal at a Meeting about THE NUMBERS

In my current job, as department chair of General Education (think Liberal Arts, not pre-College catch-up classes) at a college, I go to at least one meeting a quarter where we talk about the numbers:  new student enrollment, continuing student enrollment, average registered credit, where we hoped our numbers would be, where they are, where they were a year ago. 

We're a for-profit school, but I suspect all schools are having similar conversations.  We also talked about the plummeting stock price at our recent numbers meeting.  We talked about the recent episode of Rock Center.  We talked about recent media/legislator obsessions, like the housing collapse, and current media/legislator obsessions like the high levels of debt taken on by college students.  The person in charge of the meeting asked, "What do you think will be next?"

No one answered.  "Really, I'd like to know," the meeting facilitator asked.  "What do you think will be next?"

Just a few hours before, I'd read this story with its graphic demonstration about the amazing pace of Arctic ice melt in July.  So, I piped up.  "If the Arctic sea ice really is melting fast enough to cause more glaciers to break apart, we'll be talking about sea level rise."

Nervous laughter.  Or did people think I was joking?  I said, "Look up the rate of Arctic ice melt just for the month of July, which is happening at a much faster rate than anyone thought it would.  When we're all under water, actual water, we won't be worrying about student debt."

Click.  It was on to the next slide of the PowerPoint presentation.

Nothing changes the topic faster than talk of melting Arctic ice.  Just call me Cassandra.

I jotted down a note for a poem:  Cassandra Considers Continuing Enrollment and Calving Glaciers.

Those of you who have been reading this blog know that I've been thinking about global warming for some time now, and that Bill McKibben's article in Rolling Stone spells out the end of the Holocene Era in terrifying scientific detail.  I truly do think that in 5-20 years, we'll look back and say, "I can't believe we worried about that ______________ which seems so insignificant now that we've wrecked the planet."

You can fill in that blank in so many ways:  housing prices, fuel prices, the national debt, wildfires, the loss of jobs, drought.  Those issues will seem so manageable, compared to what we're likely facing.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Writing Advice and Inspirations of All Sorts

There are Sundays where The New York Times book review section has nothing that appeals.   Then there are other Sundays where I want to savor everything, like this Sunday's (or, if my reading is on a Saturday, is it last week's Sunday section?  in this Internet age, it becomes increasingly harder to tell).  It included lots of essays that explore the art of writing, as well as a clever review of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s online advice columns for The Rumpus, where she writes the Dear Sugar column.  The review is written in the style of a Dear Sugar column!  Genius on the part of reviewer Anna Holmes.

Most of all, I loved the Colson Whitehead piece that gives rules for writing.  In some ways, it seems his tongue is firmly in cheek:  "Writer’s block is a tool — use it. When asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, 'I’m blocked.' Since most people think that writing is some mystical process where characters 'talk to you' and you can hear their voices in your head, being blocked is the perfect cover for when you just don’t feel like working. The gods of creativity bless you, they forsake you, it’s out of your hands and whatnot. Writer’s block is like 'We couldn’t get a baby sitter' or 'I ate some bad shrimp,' an excuse that always gets you a pass. The electric company nagging you for money, your cell provider harassing you, whatever — just say, 'I’m blocked,' and you’re off the hook. But don’t overdo it. In the same way the baby-sitter bit loses credibility when your kids are in grad school, there’s an expiration date."

And yet, even with tongue in cheek, there are nuggets of good advice buried within each "rule":  "Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration. How do you think Capote came to 'In Cold Blood'? It was just an ordinary day when he picked up the paper to read his horoscope, and there it was — fate. Whether it’s a harrowing account of a multiple homicide, a botched Everest expedition or a colorful family of singers trying to escape from Austria when the Nazis invade, you can’t force it."

And of course, he must end with this classic final rule:  "There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No. There are no rules except the ones you learned during your Show and Tell days. Have fun. If they don’t want to be friends with you, they’re not worth being friends with. Most of all, just be yourself."

If you're looking for a longer read to savor, I give Carol Anshaw's Carry the One my highest recommendations.   It's the kind of book that I found myself rationing, because I didn't want it to end.  It's the kind of book I'll read again for all sorts of reasons:  the characters are compelling, the writing gorgeous, and the trajectories of characters intertwine with each other and with larger historical forces in both predictable and surprising ways.

It's not apocalyptic, in the way that a lot of my summer reading has been apocalyptic:  there are no supernatural zombies, no radiation pollution, no global disaster.  But this book does remind us that the apocalypse can be personal.  It begins with a marriage where 5 guests who are a bit too stoned/drunk to drive leave in a car.  They hit a young girl who is out roaming the country road in the wee, small hours of the morning.  This event affects them all in a wide variety of ways, some expected and some unusual.  We follow the characters through several decades, and I never got tired of them.

Along the way, the writing was so beautiful that I started turning down pages and going back to savor sentences.  Here are some to give you a taste:

"Her presence at these actions was in part due to her social concerns, in part a way of letting off steam.  She was basically a hooligan with a conscience.  If she didn't have a cause, she'd be out robbing banks." (p. 73)

"'Here we are,' he said as they pulled into a parking spot, 'the aorta of the American heart of darkness.'" (p. 83)

"This was a guy she'd probably be lucky to get, and before he had even put himself forward she was already rejecting him.  The social road ahead looked like a bleak highway, post-apocalyptic, overblown with dust, gray and lifeless, except for mutants popping up here and there." (p. 97)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Encyclopedia Brown and the Detectives of Our Childhood

Last week, I read this story in The New York Times about the death of Donald J. Sobol, the writer of the Encyclopedia Brown series, I started thinking about the mysteries I loved as a child.  I don't read many mysteries as an adult.  But I loved them as a child.

When I think about that reading, I think about Trixie Belden, who was my all-time favorite detective.  I used to divide the world into those who loved Trixie Belden best and those who loved Nancy Drew best.  I read Nancy Drew mysteries too, but she irritated me.  She was well-behaved.  She wore the proper clothes and jewelry.  She had a well-behaved boyfriend.  Even at the tender young age of 9, I knew my life as a teenager would not turn out that way.

No, I preferred Trixie Belden.  She was spunky.  She was rough and tumble.  Her hair did not behave.  But Jim, the boy next door, loved her anyway.

I read other detective series too:  the Hardy Boys and that group of two sets of twins that I remember so little about that I can't even Google them.  I read Encyclopedia Brown too.  But my heart belonged to Trixie Belden.

I did like that I could try to solve the mysteries that Encyclopedia Brown solves--or I could flip to the back of the book.  Several weeks ago, a group of us (all educators of some sort) got into a discussion of critical thinking and whether or not it could be taught and if it could, how best to do so.  As I read about the creator of Encyclopedia Brown, I wondered how many of my problem solving skills could be traced back to this kind of childhood reading.

As I've been reading about the publishing history of the series, I've been struck by the number of times that Sobol submitted the manuscript before it was published; he says it was about 2 dozen.  Since then, I don't think the Encyclopedia Brown books have ever been out of print.  It's another reminder of how important it is to believe in our own work and to keep submitting.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spoiled Milk; No Tears

We have visitors this week:  my spouse's brother and his wife are here for the better part of a week.  Having visitors means certain delights come back into our lives:  more walks at the beach!  It also means we're running back and forth to the grocery store.  When we have guests, I feel like we should adopt the more normal eating patterns of the rest of the U.S.; I'm talking about eating at regular times--which, of course, means that we need food in the house.

Yesterday, my spouse was unloading groceries.  He said, "How long was this milk in the car?"

I said, "I didn't buy any milk."

"I brought in a gallon of milk."

I was confused.  I didn't buy milk yesterday; no, I had bought milk the day before.  "The dishwasher soap?"  It was vaguely gallon jug shaped.

"I put a gallon of milk in the fridge.  Warm milk."

"But I bought milk on Tuesday."  Realization dawned. Oh dear.  We had left the milk in the trunk.  Tuesday afternoon.  Overnight.  Throughout a hot summer morning.  Happily, it didn't explode.  What an awful clean-up experience that would be.

My brave spouse took the gallon of milk outside.  His scientist self could not resist finding out that it was so curdled that he could only pour out a cup.

Well, no use crying over spoiled milk.  Onwards to planning the week:  shall we explore area lighthouses?  Go to the Everglades?  Take another walk on the beach?  When can the cousin and her family join us?

Yesterday, after realizing that I'd left the milk in the car, I looked through the mail.  My contributor copy of Adanna had arrived!  It seems like moments ago that I submitted, and now, here's the journal.  I haven't had time to look through it much, but I see that some of my  favorite contemporary poets, like Kathleen Kirk and Karen J. Weyant, are here, wonderful as ever.  Weyant's "Sleeping with the Radium Girls" fits neatly with my recent nuclear reading.

But this week, with the International AIDS Conference meeting in Washington D.C., I've been plunged backwards to a different spectre from my youth.  Last June, in this blog post, I wrote:

"What scared me more, AIDS or nuclear annihilation? I had more bad dreams about that mushroom cloud. But in terms of an insidious threat that always seemed to whisper at my consciousness, AIDS would take that trophy.

Much like nuclear annihilation, AIDS too may seem to be vanquished, only to come back again in a scarier form. Those of us with health insurance may have the luxury of seeing AIDS as a chronic condition, but diseases morph and change."

The news from the AIDS conference seems very good.  Last week, the FDA approved a drug that seems to give prophylactic protection against the virus.  It's not the vaccine we've been waiting for, that miracle injection that would keep us all safe.  The new drug is expensive for one thing.  And it needs to be taken daily, from what I understand.  Still, what an intriguing development.

And the prognosis for those infected seems more positive, with the reports of patients who have seen their viral load drop to undetectable levels.  Who'd have thought we'd see this day?

Michael Gerson wrote a great article in The Washington Post where he praises all the people who worked to make this day possible: 

"In America, it is common to distrust institutions — to express a lack of confidence in Congress, the federal government and major companies. The response to AIDS weighs on the other side of the balance.

It has brought great credit to the scientific enterprise, which first helped allay unreasoned fears, then guided evidence-based treatment and prevention. It has illustrated the power of government to do good in ways denied to individuals and private groups. Public agencies — particularly the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — met ambitious treatment goals, and on budget. The response to HIV/AIDS has been a reminder: The quest of politics is not big government or small government but effective government on the necessary scale.

The entities and individuals deserving a share of credit in the AIDS movement are marvelously diverse. Gay men in New York and San Francisco who refused to pass away in silence. Pharmaceutical companies that developed tests and antiretroviral drugs. Members of Congress from both parties who appropriated money to save lives outside their districts, outside their experience, outside their country. Taxpayers who paid the bills. Billionaire philanthropists, irritatingly persistent rock stars, nuns in Kericho. What other social movement, in its hall of fame, would need to reserve places for Gay Men’s Health Crisis and for George W. Bush, the author of PEPFAR?"

I am well aware of diseases that retreat and then come back with a vengeance.  But there are also diseases that once wiped out chunks of humanity which eventually become fairly mild childhood diseases.

It's easy to get bogged down by bad news.  It's easy to fear the future.  But it's good to remember that so far, humans continue to make astonishing progress.  In a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Jill Tarter talks about the search for intelligence beyond our own planet and whether or not we should worry about what happens when the aliens arrive.  She says, "They [the aliens] are an old technology. How did they get to be an old technology? Well, one thing - one way might have been that they outgrew the aggressive tendencies that were probably at the base of their becoming intelligent in the first place. When you look at evolutionary biology - at least, on this planet - one explanation for how intelligence arose is the predator-prey situation that ratchets up intelligence.  But after a while, when the kill power becomes so extreme, then in fact, our evolutionary best strategy might be to back away from that. Steven Pinker has a recent book that argues that we are kinder today than we used to be. So I don't think you can get to be an old technology unless you manage to stabilize your population, husband your resources, and get your world in shape."

The news from the AIDS conference makes me think we are indeed stabilizing our population and husbanding our resources.  There's still much work to be done to get our world in shape, no doubt.  But how wonderful that AIDS now seems to be a manageable disease for most people.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Space Pioneers

On Monday, Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer.  She's one of those pioneers who made life better for those coming after her--not all pioneers do, after all. 

She was the first U.S. woman in space--and the youngest to head beyond Earth's atmosphere.  She could have cashed in on this celebrity, but she refused--and she even asked NASA to refrain from doing so.

Instead, she went about the business of inspiring young women to follow in her footsteps, and she set up a foundation to help continue the work.

In all the reading that I did yesterday when I heard the news that she had died, I was fascinated to discover that she had a double major in her undergraduate studies:  English and Physics!  She immersed herself in Shakespeare before going on to graduate work in Physics.

I graduated from high school in late May of 1983.  About 20 days later, Sally Ride went into space.  I often wonder if I had been younger, if I might have followed a different path.  Before Sally Ride, it would never have occurred to me that women could be astronauts.  If I had known that a woman could study both Shakespeare and Physics, instead of choosing, would I have made other choices?

Maybe.  But I didn't go to med school because I didn't want to be in school all those extra years.  I never anticipated that I'd go on to get a Ph.D., that I'd stay in school for those extra years.  Had I known, would I have made other choices?

Ah, hindsight, my mother would say.

I love that we live in a time where most of my female students feel they can aspire to any career.  Unfortunately, some careers require more planning than others.  We're still not at a point yet where we require high school students to undertake the rigorous classes that would open a wider variety of doors later.  Many students graduate from high school without taking much in the way of Science or Math courses.

We live in a strange time.  I know a 7th grader who's taking Calculus in his public school.  I know a college student who decided to drop his pre-Calculus class because he just couldn't wrap his head around it; he went to a fancy private high school, but seems less equipped than the 7th grader who's going to his neighborhood public school.  I breezed through pre-Calculus in undergraduate school, but didn't continue on because no other Math classes were required of me--but I had trouble with Statistics, taught in the Social Sciences department.  That was back in the mid 80's.  Maybe the times we're living in aren't so strange after all.

I'm glad that women like Sally Ride blazed a path.  I'm grateful that she acted like it was no big deal, that of course she did it, that any child could grow up to do it too.  I worry that we're losing sight of that lesson.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hope, Faith, and Fallout: Terry Tempest Williams

Yesterday's post about Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article and the end of the Holocene Age and the Holocene Extinction which we're currently experiencing made me need something hopeful.  Happily, the NPR program On Being offered this interview with Terry Tempest Williams (you can listen here as well as find all sorts of resources, like some of her writings).

Careful readers of this blog may remember that I've written about her before (go here to refresh your memory).  People who note synchronicities may say, "What are the odds that a radio programmer unknown to you would have a Terry Tempest Williams interview during the same time when you're thinking about nuclear pollution and its downriver effects?"

At the On Being website, you can read (or reread) her essay, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," an essay which neatly demonstrates her writing as feminist and naturalist.  It also documents her family's experience with being exposed to nuclear pollution.  That essay later became a book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

The radio show includes a passage from the book, where Williams remembers a conversation with her father, shortly after her mother (Diane) died of breast cancer:

"Over dessert, I shared a recurring dream of mine. I told my father that for years, as long as I could remember, I saw this flash of light in the night in the desert — that this image had so permeated my being that I could not venture south without seeing it again, on the horizon, illuminating buttes and mesas.

'You did see it,' he said. 'Saw what?' 'The bomb. The cloud. We were driving home from Riverside, California. You were sitting on Diane's lap. She was pregnant. In fact, I remember the day, September 7, 1957. We had just gotten out of the Service. We were driving north, past Las Vegas. It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explosion went off. I thought the oil tanker in front of us had blown up. We pulled over and suddenly, rising from the desert floor, we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the car.'

I stared at my father. 'I thought you knew that,' he said. 'It was a common occurrence in the fifties.' […] It is a well-known story in the Desert West, 'The Day We Bombed Utah,' or more accurately, the years we bombed Utah: above ground atomic testing in Nevada took place from January 27, 1951 through July 11, 1962. […]

When the Atomic Energy Commission described the country north of the Nevada Test Site as 'virtually uninhabited desert terrain,' my family and the birds at Great Salt Lake were some of the 'virtual uninhabitants.'"

Thankfully, for now at least, we no longer allow aboveground testing of nuclear weapons.  It boggles the mind, the fallout issues, the lack of warning, the lack of concern for the land, the animals, the humans.

Williams has also written about the Gulf oil spill, which also boggles the mind.  During the interview, Krista Tippett, the host says, "You've said sometimes the most radical act is to stay home."

She could mean this in all sorts of ways, from our cars and air travel and all the other ways we use fossil fuels and thus become complicit with the oil companies.  It's also a radical act to let ourselves get deeply rooted in our communities.

In this interview, Williams talks about the art of writing and the art of activism, and she also talks about the art of mosaic, which she learned.  Tippett and Williams talk about mosaic as metaphor.  Williams says, "You know, I have a friend, Linda Asher, who's a translator of Milan Kundera. She was an editor for years at The New Yorker, in international fiction in particular. And she said something very provocative the other day where she said, 'I'm not sure eloquence is enough. I'm not sure language is enough." And that really stopped me because for me words are everything, and I know for her words are everything. But she said, "You know, that's too easy. It's like being too beautiful.' And she brought it back down to the notion of action. And I realized, I said, 'Thank you for reminding me.' And I think that was the power for me in making the mosaics. It took me out of my head into my hands, into creating something real with other people. I mean, mosaic by its very nature is a collaborative process. And, you know, beauty is not optional, but it is a strategy for survival."

When I feel at my most despairing, I make bread.  That's not the only time I make it, but it's good to remember my essential self.  It's good to get out of my head and my hands into dough.  The action of the yeast--small particles making bread dough puff up--I love that metaphor.

I've covered this territory numerous times in poems.  One of my favorites can be found at the end of this blog post.

Whatever we do to maintain hope or faith in the face of great odds, it's important to keep doing it, whether it be writing or baking bread or gardening or making mosaics.  It's good to have people like Terry Tempest Williams and Krista Tippett to remind us.

Monday, July 23, 2012

In the Ruins of the Holocene Era

I've been writing and thinking about nuclear pollution and the nuclear nightmares that haunted my adolescence. I noted that in recent years, I had been more worried about global warming. An article by the ever-wonderful Bill McKibben in the current Rolling Stone confirms that we're right to worry. The damage to the planet has accelerated in ways that have surprised even the most sober of scientists.

It's hard to imagine that the planet can regroup after the kind of disaster we're foisting upon it--but it's recovered before. This NPR piece reminds us of an earlier global warming event that killed off an estimated 95% of life on Earth. As we know, life has come back.

Still, I'd prefer not to have this front seat admission to the Holocene extinction. McKibben begins his article this way:

"If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."

The article gives important background in terms of the science of what the planet can stand. McKibben understands what we're up against, how hard it will be for humans to change. He says, "This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders."

McKibben is clear that the true villains in this story are the petroleum companies--that idea will probably not be new to most of us. He concludes this way:

"The week after the Rio conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever recorded for that date. Last month, on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season's fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado's annals claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust."

I'm convinced by his argument, although to be accurate, I agreed with his points before I read the article. What is unclear to me is what we can do as individuals.

McKibben references the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980's, which made me think of other sweeping social justice changes that once seemed impossible but then happened.  Nelson Mandela is in jail for longer than I've been alive, and then he's released and then, not many more years later, he's elected President.  If we went back to 1984 and told people this would happen, we'd be dismissed as crazy.

Could we do the same thing with global warming?  The science is clear:  we are running out of time.  If we don't do something soon, we'll look back on this time and think, "Really?  We worried about student debt and the national debt and all those other things which turned out to be so inconsequential in the face of the other changes already set into motion?"

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Book Most Frequently Stolen From School Libraries

Today is the birthday of S.E. Hinton.  She's perhaps most famous for her book, The Outsiders.  Even though it was first published in 1967, it still sells over 500,000 copies a year.  Some years, it's the book most stolen from school libraries.

Upon stumbling across this nugget of information, I immediately felt a stab of both envy and yearning.  To have written a book so powerful that students steal it from school libraries--what an accomplishment that would be!

I can't remember when I first read the book, sometime in the late 1970's, I imagine.  I first started reading "young adult" books around 1977, so I imagine I got hold of Hinton around then.  I inhaled her books and returned to them again and again, although they didn't really describe my suburban world.  But if we can judge by book sales, they certainly tap into some universal elements.

It's also interesting to consider how the world has changed.  Susan Eloise Hinton used the name S. E. Hinton because her editors thought that no one would believe that a female could have written about such gritty material.

Now, it's hard to imagine an editor saying that.  Actually, it's not, but I would find the situation reversed somewhat.  If a male wanted to write about a teenage female yearning for love in the arms of a vampire, he might adopt a female nom de plume.

I was in a Barnes and Noble bookstore the other day which led me to reflect on how long it's been since I've been in a bookstore long enough to wander the aisles.  There's a whole section on teenage supernatural romance.  And it's a huge section.

Yes, I know that authors have used supernatural elements when writing about real-life drama and trauma.  I wrote my dissertation on how certain British authors used Gothic elements to explore the very real problems of domestic violence as the 18th century turned into the 19th century.

 Still, I'm heartened that people continue reading books of gritty realism, like The Outsiders.   

Saturday, July 21, 2012

In Praise of Muscular Sentences

Today is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway.  If you made a list of writers who substantially changed the way we write, Hemingway would likely make your short list.  If you don't believe me, pick up a book, almost any book, from the 19th century.  Marvel at the length of the sentences.  Get bogged down by all the background information.  Allow yourself to be amused by all the side trips that writers made. 

While you're at it, do some arm curls.  Get an upper body workout with the sheer heft of the novel.

Then turn to Hemingway:  those short sentences that aren't bogged down with excess clauses and phrases.  The information given to the reader in sparing bits. 

I used to write muscular prose.  I had a dissertation reader who told me that my sentences were too clear and concise.  I was urged to muddy up my prose.

What does that even mean?  I was teaching Composition students to write in compact sentences.  I tried to train them to say exactly what they meant and to make sure that each sentence says something new. 

I thought of that yesterday when I was told by several department members that an e-mail that I sent out was too complicated.  I was trying to let them know when I'd be out of the office and when my office hours might change.  Perhaps I should have sent out 2 separate e-mails.  Perhaps some of my department members said, "Why does she think we'll care about that?"

These days I probably do approach e-mails in the same way that I approach blog postings.  I probably could pare down my e-mail style.

Hemingway also did a lot to change the way that we see writers.  No longer did writers lock themselves away in their studies.  Now writers who fashioned themselves after Hemingway wanted to have adventures.  Have rifle, will hunt!

That hyper-masculine image shut out a lot of people.  How many people decided not to write because they couldn't compete on that level?  How many women were mistreated by men following Hemingway's model?

If you judge writers by their private lives, you'll find a lot to dislike in Hemingway's biography.  People have said plenty about that.  In my younger years, I'd have dismissed Hemingway solely on the grounds of his treatment of his wives.

Now I wonder how his life might have been improved if he'd had access to the psychotropic drugs that have been developed in later decades.  Now I try to be more tolerant.

I haven't read Hemingway in many decades.  Honestly, I likely won't return to Hemingway.  There are so many writers I'd like to read again.  There are so many writers that I have yet to read.   

If you're ever in Key West, the Hemingway House is worth the entrance price.  For years, I resisted.  But when we were there with my parents, my dad really wanted to go.  It's one of many times that I'm grateful for travelling with others.  It's an experience that gets me out of my own little orbit.  I'd have likely never gone to the Hemingway House on my own.  But it was fascinating, that glimpse of how people used to live, that tropical beauty of a Key West house.

In honor of Hemingway, maybe it's time to look at our own prose.  How many words could we extract from each sentence?  How many sentences could we pare away altogether? 

Friday, July 20, 2012


Last week, when I was doing my "research" on the Savannah River Site, I wrote down the word "glassified."  Maybe if I had been doing real research, I could have retraced my steps and found the word again.  Maybe it never existed.

As I was Internet zipping (as opposed to research), my brain decided that a new method of storing nuclear waste had been invented at the Savannah River Site:  glassification!  I thought, I'll have to come back to that; I want to know more.  I had this vision of waste being trapped in glass, which of course, is much more stable than metal containers, which can rust.  My brain stored all these "facts."

But then I went back to several sites and couldn't find the word "glassified" on any of them.  I couldn't find much mention at all of new methods of storing nuclear waste.  Old methods, sure.  But not new.  And certainly not a glassified strategy.

I think that since I wasn't reading carefully, and certainly not researching, my brain transposed some things.  You've probably figured out by now that I saw the word "classified" and read it as "glassified."

Now that I'm writing all this, I want to go back to double-check my double-checking.  Can I really have gotten so much wrong in such little time?  Or is it there, buried somewhere, but when I went back to double-check, I simply couldn't find it?

And the larger question looms for me:  how much else have I gotten wrong, but never realized it because I never went back to double-check?

And my poet brain loves the word "glassified."  I didn't use it in the poem that I wrote about the Savannah River Site.  I wonder if I could use it in another way.  Maybe in my collection of linked short stories, in the short story that will be set further in the future when interplanetary travel is easier.  Oh, yes, I will use it there!

Alternate Life Kristin, the one who is a jewelry designer in a different universe, also schemes.  Could you stabilize nuclear waste in a glass pendant?  Plutonium in a pendant?  I have a vision of an amber colored glass, shot through with red.

Have no fear!  I'm not a jewelry designer, and even if I was, I know enough about nuclear contamination that I wouldn't incorporate nuclear waste.  Artists are threatened enough with their regular art supplies.  Why introduce known carcinogens?

I bet lots of people would buy plutonium pendants, though.  I have a vision of a Marie Curie line of jewelry.  Or cosmetics.  No, not cosmetics.  Surely people wouldn't paint plutonium dust on their eyelids.

Would they?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Nuclear Apocalypse Revisited--With Pollution This Time!

For the past week, my reading has plunged me back into the world of nuclear nightmares. I spent one week-end reading Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden, a book which combines memoir with a history of Rocky Flats, a plant which made plutonium triggers and was a huge polluter. Four days later, I read Kathleen Flenniken's Plume, a book of poems rooted in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, another huge polluter.  Both are great books, and I'll review them more thoroughly on August 21 and 22.

Plume and Full Body Burden in the same week--my brain is full of Superfund sites! I thought of Jeannine Hall Gailey and what she's written about Oak Ridge (go here  and here for great interviews). I thought of my college and grad school years which were spent not very far away from the Savannah River Site. I remember a time when nuclear pollution was found upriver, where experts declared there was no way it could have migrated there. I'm not sure that anyone ever figured it out. And when I did some Googling, I found no reference to those incidents. Now you read about the Savannah River Site (on the admittedly few sites I went to), and it sounds very bright and clean and patriotic. Very early 1960's.

I spent my youth with one eye trained to the distance, looking for that telltale mushroom cloud. I didn't think about plutonium particles leaching into the soil. I didn't think about nuclear pollution in sediments in lakes and river beds. I didn't think about water tables being polluted.  Well, not often.  I was more worried about the huge blast.

Nuclear scientists and historians will tell us that I was right to be thinking in terms of nuclear explosions. But I also should have been worried about pollution from the plants making those bombs. In the long run, that pollution will probably prove more dangerous.

I spent some time thinking about lung tissue and how easy it is to damage it.  I have a colleague at work who bemoans the fact that we do so little manufacturing here.  But she forgets that a lot of manufacturing was very dangerous, both to humans and the land, regardless of safety standards.

I thought of those workers in cotton mills who would die of fibers embedded in their lungs.  I thought of those workers in nuclear sites who would die of plutonium particles embedded in their lungs.  Those nuclear sites were often sold as offering better jobs at higher wages to the community.  And yet, so many would die.

I thought of a picnic that we went on when we were in college.  My friend's family had land in rural South Carolina, complete with a picnic table under a gazebo.  Because it was a hot Spring day, we planned to go swimming in the river that bordered the family's land.

That river was the Savannah River.  We knew about the nuclear pollution showing up in places where it shouldn't.  We swam anyway.  I was careful not to swallow any water.  Oh, how little I knew about nuclear waste!

On the way home, we took note of scorched pines and wondered if we were seeing nuclear pollution.  We thought about those movies that haunted our college years:  The Day AfterTestament, and Threads, the nuclear war triumvirate of movies.  We thought of post-apocalypse landscapes.

But sometimes, a forest fire is just a forest fire.

I'm working on a poem that weaves these ideas together.  I'm also thinking about a larger collection of poems, one that weaves together nuclear obsessions with global warming obsessions and just for fun--a dose of monastic wisdom here and there.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Ft. Lauderdale

Today is the birthday of Hunter S. Thompson, one of the pioneers of a once-new journalism style, gonzo journalism.  Unlike journalists of past generations, who tried to stay neutral and uninvolved, journalists like Thompson became an integral part of the stories that they covered or uncovered.

It would be interesting to talk to journalists who came of age in the 1980's to see whether they were more influenced by the style of Thompson or by the adventures of journalists like Woodward and Bernstein who brought to light Nixon's involvement in the Watergate break-in.

When I think of Hunter S. Thompson, I think of Bill Murray's depiction of him in Where the Buffalo Roam.  I saw this film with a group of my college friends during years where we put out the college newspaper.  We had all grown up in the aftermath of Watergate, and we all dreamed of being Woodward and Bernstein--or Hunter S. Thompson. We watched All the President's Men and dreamed of all the corruption we might uncover. We watched Where the Buffalo Roam and proclaimed that life could never get weird enough for us, and tried to figure out how to get alcohol into grapefruit so we could have theatrical props. We dreamed of the great stories that existed on campus, just waiting for someone to come along and expose them.

In the end, we had a lot of space in our college newspaper and not much in the way of sensational stories of sordid greed. So, we wrote about other things. People like me, who had ideas and who could meet a deadline, could write about almost anything we wanted. Did we care if anyone read our stories? Yes, but . . . the more important issue was whether or not we could cover the amount of newsprint we were obligated to fill.

I remember writing a story about the death of Simone de Beauvoir. I wrote about every strange record album that caught my attention. I wrote about books I was reading. I'm sure I wrote about the plight of South Africa and Central America, the foreign affairs flashpoints of the 1980's, when I was in school. I'm sure I wrote fretful pieces about the nuclear war I was sure was just around the corner. I'm sure I wrote more mundane pieces about various campus happenings.

One reason that I didn't follow my passion into the grown up world of journalism is that I knew that I wouldn't be allowed the same kind of latitude I'd been given in college. I'd be given boring stories to write, and for 10-20 years, I'd write them, hoping that some day I'd be given freedom to follow my own interests.

Until recently, I felt rather brilliant for going into the education field instead of journalism as I've watched more and more newspapers collapse.  However, lately I'm realizing that my college journalism buddies missed the big story that was unfolding around us, the withdrawal of public support for higher education.  Now students fund most, if not all, of their education.  Now state schools get very little support from taxpayers; the average amount seems to be between 9 and 18 percent. 

Where does the rest come from?  Depends on the school.  Research schools get a lot of money from private industries who give out grant money.  Smaller, non-research schools might get a lot of their money from tuition.  Some schools are lucky enough to have private endowments.  I suspect that many state schools will be closing or joining forces with other state schools (and downsizing in major areas) as we go through the next several decades.

Down here in South Florida, it would be quite easy to find tales of political corruption if one wanted to be a modern day Woodward, Bernstein, or Thompson.  It's much harder to find politicians with an educational plan for taking us all into the future. 


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Pages from the Beckett Handbook: First Days of the Quarter

There are days when I'm convinced I'm a character in an absurdist play:  it's the only way my life--particularly my work life--makes sense.

The first week of our summer quarter veered between surreal moments and the kind of ordinariness that would be dreary, if not for the surreal stuff that bookended the ordinary bits. 

I arrived on Monday not sure that the classrooms would be ready, since late on the Friday before the start of the quarter, the rooms were far from ready:  desks in the hallways, computer equipment hither and yon, painting still in progress.

But happily on Monday, all I had to do was to move some chairs into a "new" classroom that was supposed to have 35 chairs, but only had 26.  Why didn't we do that on Friday?  The room was still a storage area on the Friday before the quarter started.

Once I moved the chairs, it was clear that the room wouldn't hold 35 comfortably.  So, I moved some classes into different rooms, moved those classes into the "new" room, and posted signs.  There was still some traffic directing to do, since very few people actually read the signs posted on the door, but for the most part, we coped.

So, the first part of the first week of the quarter turned into the end of the week, and I thought that all the issues were settled.  Thursday was almost eerily quiet.  I congratulated myself on solving the first week issues that had bedeviled us on Monday and Tuesday.  I prepared some poetry packets.  I thought about creating a new, book-length collection of poems.  I was ready to sink down into Summer quarter.

Ah, hubris.

On Friday (yes, Friday the 13th), one of my faculty members told me that one of our computer classrooms was missing computers.  I went up to count, and sure enough, we were missing 6 computers.  I did all the electronic filing to let the various people in charge know of this problem.

Come to find out, many of our computer classrooms were scheduled to lose computers over the break.  We've lost students, so we don't need as many computers--so goes the reasoning on the administrative side higher up.

Unfortunately, no one told us folks who actually manage the classes that go into the classrooms.  These decisions probably happened 8 weeks ago, when there would have been plenty of time to make decisions that would have avoided the problems that I now must solve.  I could have made classes smaller or made better use of the one remaining larger computer classroom had I been alerted of these changes earlier.  But no, I didn't find out until Summer quarter classes were in full swing.

Not for the first time did I think about Beckett's Waiting for Godot.  I half expected a tramp to ask me for a carrot or a radish.  I strategized.  I consulted the room use chart.  I thought about trees and leaves and fraying ropes and belts.  I spent Friday afternoon sending out all sorts of e-mails, which I wouldn't have had to do, had I just been told about the room changes when the decisions were first made.  I cast longing looks back to Thursday.  I forbid myself to interpret all the absurdity into a cosmic sign, a direction from God.

Late in the day, I walked down a hallway.  The young man walking towards me--was he whistling "La Marseillaise"?  Surely not.  We passed each other.  He whistled the opening notes again.  I turned and said, "Are you whistling the French national anthem?"  He turned and said, "Yes I am."  I said, "Happy Bastille Day!" 

Yes, I'm a character in a surreal play--it's the only explanation.  I'd rather be a character in a frothy romantic comedy, preferably one set in Paris or San Francisco or some picturesque town in the British Isles.

At least I'm not a character in a Greek tragedy. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

In Praise of a Paper Plate

It's hard to believe that it's been 3 weeks since our Vacation Bible School.  We do ours fairly early, just after school is out, before we lose people to vacations and camp.  For those of you who have yet to spend part of your summer working with children, I offer this reminder in praise of cheap supplies.

I bought many supplies for my recent stint as Arts and Crafts Director for our church's Vacation Bible School.  I didn't expect that a lowly paper plate would have so many uses.  I bought a package of 200, and we used almost every one.

Below you'll see one of the most common uses, as a surface to do the work.

Paper plates also make a great surface for projects that are in process.  Below, you see clay air drying.

Paper plates also make great palettes for paint. 

It's good to have a surface underneath what you're painting.

Paper plates protect the other surfaces as paint dries.  And if people have to take a project home before it's completely dry, the paper plate provides protection and makes transportation a smidge easier.

On the last day, we made masks out of paper plates.

Sure, we could have done plaster molds, or something much more complicated, like wrapping people's faces in the plaster infused cloth strips that are used to make casts.  But a paper plate is an easy medium.  And not claustrophobic!

Everyone loved this project. 

We only had 5 days, so we could have done more:  noisemakers out of plates stapled together comes to mind. 

What a treat to remember that sometimes the most basic, cheap materials yield just as much fun as the higher end products.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bastille Day Tour de France Spin Class Ride

Yesterday, we had a super special spin class ride:  the Tour de France ride.  And on Bastille Day, to boot!

Now admittedly, if Bastille Day had fallen on a non-Saturday, we'd have had a non-Bastille Day ride.  In fact, I may have been the only one in the room who made the Bastille Day connection.  I'm fairly certain I was the only one in the room who could sing part of "La Marseillaise," the French National Anthem.  Yes, I sang in French:

"Allons enfants de la Patrie, 

Le jour de gloire est arrivé !"

Amazing what one's brain retains from high school French class!

Our spin class teacher had put together a soundtrack and gotten coverage of the 2000 Tour de France.  So, we rode, and on the big screen, we watched the various riders and the glorious French countryside and the crazy spectators.  Occasionally, I pretended that they cheered for me.

We tried to ride at a race day pace.  I wasn't sure what that would entail.  I've never done a race day spin class before.  Happily, there are many ways to ride fast.  We didn't just ride pell mell for 70 minutes.  We had some songs where we'd ride more quickly than a usual pace, but not a breathless pace--but then, at the refrain, we'd pick up the pace to breathlessness.  We had some songs where we'd add a bit more gear--in other words, we pedalled at the same pace, but it was a bit harder to turn the pedals.  At one point, we took turns "taking the lead":  one person pedalled at a pulling out ahead of the pack pace for 20 seconds, then the next person did, and then the next person, and so on.  We had about 20 riders, so that took some time.  As that was happening, if we wanted to try to keep up, we could.

The music inspired, the video of professional riders inspired, but the real inspiration came from each other.  We were there to push against our limits.  We wanted each other to be successful.  It was great.

We did that for 70 minutes and then we gradually slowed down over 5 minutes. Our teacher had brought sparkling grape juice ("champagne"), and we enjoyed that as we stretched.

I was able to sustain my efforts for the whole class.  I don't feel too bad today.  I'm a little sore in places, but I expect that.

It was a great experience.  I wouldn't want to do it all the time, but it's good to push myself occasionally.  It makes me realize that I could be doing more.  I tend to lose focus as the ride goes on.  But yesterday, I sustained my focus.  It makes me wonder if I could ride more intensely more often.

Likewise, I wonder if I could be more focused in other parts of my life or if I could maintain my focus for longer periods of time.  I've talked about learning to write with the small scraps of time that come my way.  But maybe it's also time to look at the distractions, like the Internet, that I could control and work on getting more focus during the long swatches of time.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

This Machine Kills Fascists: Woody Guthrie at Age 100

One hundred years ago today, Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma.  His early years were dicey:  born into a middle-class family that was about to become much poorer as the nation plunged into the Great Depression with a mother who was mentally unstable because of Huntington's disease.  Soon, he was on his own.

He travelled the country, often by jumping on trains.  I tend to romanticize those journeys and forget about how dangerous they were.  I'm influenced by the amazing songs that came out of those travels.  But if we're brutally honest, it's amazing that Woody Guthrie survived those journeys and was able to create art.

Many of his fellow travellers died.  The hobo lifestyle exposes one to all sorts of dangers beyond the basic danger of jumping on a moving train:  the elements, criminals, unsavory public officials and sheriffs, hunger.

Woody Guthrie did many things in his life, but he's most famous for his songwriting.  A great article on Woody Guthrie in The Washington Post reminds us:  "But Guthrie’s long-term influence as a singer-songwriter can’t be overstated. 'For the folk revivalists,' Place says, 'Woody was the great folksinger, the authentic voice. He wasn’t the first to do this, but [with] the concept of the singer-songwriter, he was the really big one. Nowadays, most people who play acoustic guitar are going to play their own songs. But before Guthrie,hardly anyone was doing that.'”  (Jeff Place is an archivist for the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage).

Guthrie was not what has come to be the stereotype of the morose singer-songwriter, working out relationships in song.  No, Guthrie saw himself fighting injustice and preserving the lives of those society forgets or casts out.  He had a sticker on his guitar that declared, "This machine kills fascists."  And in some ways, he singlehandedly made great strides, dragging society along with him, in making our culture more inclusive.

It's even more amazing when you consider how little musical training he had.  He couldn't read music, but that didn't stop him.  He often used songs that were already in existence and changed the lyrics.  In many ways, it's a brilliant technique.  Not only could he remember them this way, but others could too.

A recent episode of Talk of the Nation includes this nugget: "Guthrie, you know, he consciously used older melodies - and a lot of composers have done that - so that the audience can immediately pick up on it. So you, like, start singing - you know, like the song we listened to, 'Big City Ways,' is based off a major country hit at the time called 'Brown's Ferry Blues.' So everybody who was like - who knew that song could just immediately pick up on it and sing along. And that was, you know - and people say, OK. Is that stealing? No. It's just the way that topical songs work. People wanted - well, he wanted these things to be sung by the people" (Hear or read the NPR program here).

I've often wondered if poets should be taking their cues from Woody Guthrie, if poetry might not be an endangered art form if more of us did.  I've written before about sneering dismissals about poetry being accessible--but artists like Guthrie remind us of the importance of accessibility, especially if we're looking to make meaningful changes in the world.

Today, on the 100th anniversary of Guthrie's birth, is a good time to think about our own art.  What do we hope to accomplish?  If we championed the forgotten and the outcast, which groups would we showcase in our work?  Can protest art be more beautiful and enticing than it has been?  Can we be angry without being alienating?

On the hundredth anniversary of our own births, what would we hope that future scholars and historians focused upon?

The Woody Guthrie website

Another great NPR story about Woody Guthrie on Fresh Air

Friday, July 13, 2012

Of Pies and "Plume"

Yesterday, I began the day thinking about pies, particularly the ones made by my grandmother.  Early in the day, I also learned that Marion Cunningham had died.  I first thought of Ritchie's mom on the T.V. show Happy Days.  After a minute of confusion, I realized that the Marion Cunningham who died was the woman who so impressed James Beard that he recommended her to update/rewrite The Fanny Farmer Cookbook.  She went on to write many others.

What sticks with me most about that retrospective of Cunningham's life was that she began this career after she turned 50.  Unlike the success narratives so popular in the U.S., she was able to accomplish quite a lot, even though she got what for most of us would be an unbearably late start.

Like many women artists, however, she had children to raise, which she did, before going on to other methods of fulfillment.  Even though I have no children, I still love these narratives of people who achieve levels of success, even though they're older.  I'm surrounded by stories of this 20-something who wins this award, and that 20-something who has published these umpteen fabulous things.  It's good to remember that we don't have to achieve our full potential in the first quarter of our lives.

I love that Cunningham took one of her passions and turned it into a career.  I thought of this story in The Washington Post about a woman who gives pie baking lessons in home kitchens.  For the privilege of learning how to bake a perfect (in an artisanal way) pie, her students pay $200.  They get a pie to take home and a slice of pie (made earlier in the day) and champagne to enjoy together at the end of their endeavor.

I thought about the women who paid $200 for this adventure.  It made me think about what I want to learn and how much I'd be willing to pay.  It made me contemplate my skills.  It made me want pie.

Later in the afternoon, I consumed all of Kathleen Flenniken's collection of poems, Plume, in one setting.  I'll be writing a longer review in August, when I have a series of reviews of apocalyptic books planned (look for it August 19-22).  But in the meantime, let me just say that the book is indeed as wonderful as I'd heard it to be.

Wonderful and terrifying.  Reading her poems which weave together historical data of the most chilling kind and personal stories of loss and images of the scarred landscape around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation made me want something comforting even more.

It made me wish that I had a pie waiting for me when I got home.  A pot pie, followed by a fruit pie for dessert. 

Of course, slaying my nuclear nightmares with pie is a sure, albeit delicious, recipe for weight gain.  Instead, I went to spin class, where I pedaled away my stress to Motown music.  A great way to end the day!  Not as tasty as pie, but a healthier option for the long term.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Yearning for the Past: Civil War Reenactors and Girls Who Miss Their Grandmas

Recently, I read this review of Charlie Schroeder's Man of War:  My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment.  It took me back to days in South Carolina, not as a reenactor by any means.  Oh, no, I like too many modern comforts, like toilet paper, for that.  But the review took me back to my days as a woman shopping for fabric with my grandmother.

Long ago, my grandmother made most of my skirts and shorts and the occasional shirt, if the pattern was simple enough.  I was a poor student, so I was happy for her to sew for me; my mother remembers wishing she could afford clothing ready made from stores when she was an adolescent, but I did not.  My grandmother had long days, so she was happy for sewing projects to fill the hours.

When I'd go to visit her, we'd go to the fabric stores.  Even when she couldn't sew as much, we'd still go to fabric stores together.  I was shopping for fabric for quilts, but even if I hadn't been, we'd have likely gone to fabric stores out of habit.

I loved the store in 96, South Carolina (yes, that's the name of a town).  At one point, the fabric store was attached to a factory that made the cloth.  We always found bolts of cloth there that we wouldn't find elsewhere.

96 Fabrics also had a corner of the store devoted to Civil War reenactors.  It had period authentic fabrics and buttons and other dry goods.  It had patterns.  As I sifted through the items, I thought that a historian could tell a lot about the Civil War by looking at this corner of the store.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that a historian could tell a lot about our modern culture, by analyzing our fascination with the various time periods that take hold of us.

I didn't ever buy any of the materials or dry goods.  It was incredibly pricy to be authentic.

I never really thought that store would go away, but it has.  Maybe it's relocated; I heard rumors, just before my grandmother got too frail to go shopping with me, that the store moved to Abbeville.

I wish I had taken pictures of that corner of the store.  The term "store" is really a misnomer.  It was a warehouse, with high ceilings and ducts of all sorts running overhead.  The floor was concrete, with all sorts of fibers blowing through from the factory.  It had some partitions up, to set aside parts of the store.  There was the reenactors corner, just a few jumps away from the bridal section.  There were vast tables of remnants, most of which were astonishingly cheap.

I wish I could go shopping with my grandmother again.  I wish I knew how to sew.  I wish I had time to sew.

I wish I could travel back in time, just for one summer afternoon.  I'd go to 96 Fabrics with my grandmother again.  I'd love to hear her say, "Greenwood is growing," as she always did about her the town in which she'd spent the better part of her life.  I'd love to hear her memories of what used to be on which corner.  I'd love to come home to a dinner of her good cooking:  pork chops with gravy and white rice (or maybe some sort of chicken casserole), at least 4 vegetables on the side, with her homemade rolls. 

I'd pay big money to have one of her pies again, even if I couldn't have the meal.  She always apologized for her piecrusts, which tasted fine to me.  I loved every pie she ever made, except for banana cream pie (because I don't like bananas, not because there was anything wrong with her pie).

And after dessert, it would be great to sit on the porch, watching the world go by, watching darkness gathering in, seeing fireflies beginning their flickering.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing at Work

I expected to get more writing tasks accomplished in the past few weeks, despite the fact that I continued to work, even though the faculty and students were taking their vacation time.  In fact, I expected to get more writing tasks done because the faculty and students were taking their vacation time.  I thought the place would be delightfully empty.  It was.  But I met people for lunch and recovered from/prepared for Vacation Bible School and caught up on the work that didn't get done before the term ended . . . and before I knew it, the time off was over.

I got more done Monday and yesterday, despite frequent interruptions, than I did during the blissful quiet of faculty/student vacation.  It makes me wonder about my ideas of needing peace and quiet and knowing that I won't be interrupted.

Part of my break was consumed by trying to make sure that desks and chairs were ready for the start of our quarter.  Even on Monday, the task wasn't done--insert a heavy sigh here because it shouldn't be so hard to add 10 desks to one classroom, 15 to another, and to convert a room that's been storing all sorts of junk into a lecture room (people have known that the task needed to be completed for at least 5 weeks).

At one point during the break, I called the dean to tell him that we had no classroom just 2 days before the start of the quarter.  He said, "I'm coming right over.  We'll look at it together."

So, I didn't want to start on any important projects, since I expected to be interrupted momentarily.  I thought about writing a blog post entitled "Things to Do While Waiting on the Dean."  It would include things like "sort through your old e-mails" and "sort through your paper files."

But I decided that the larger issue is more interesting.  You see, my dean never made it to my building.  And I spent 2 hours taking care of not-very-important things.  Sure, at some point my e-mail system will crash if I don't sort through the old e-mails.  But I could have spent those 2 hours writing or sending out submissions or sorting through my blog posts on my memoir quest.

Why didn't I?

For fear of being interrupted.  As simple as that.

Yet, on Monday and Tuesday, when I knew I would be interrupted, I was able to accomplish some writing tasks:  a few submissions, cleaning up my blog links, some work on the memoir project.  And I was interrupted, and I was able to keep the writing task in mind while dealing with the issue that interrupted it.  Not a huge deal.

It makes me wonder how much more I could accomplish if I forced myself to work despite my fear of interruption.  Once upon a time, I didn't start a writing task unless I was sure I had a chunk of time--at least 1 hour.  Now, I'm better at not demanding huge swaths of time.

My next task:  to get over my fear of interruption!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Turning Japanese: Monday Jitters and Joys

--I am relieved to see my blog up and normal looking today.  I half expected to see Japanese when I logged in this morning.

--Why would I expect to see Japanese?  Yesterday, Kathleen Kirk wrote to me:  "BUT, in attempting to link to Pudding House, I clicked the book cover at your blog and was taken to a Japanese site. I clicked translate, and it was a business site and/or fake business site (?!) (or has Pudding House disappeared?)."

--One other link on my blogsite page also linked to a site that looked Japanese.  That link once upon a time took readers to a poem in an online journal.  I suspect the link has been dead for some time.  Still, it's disconcerting that two links on my blogsite took people to Japanese sites.

--My anxiety was exacerbated by the fact that I was writing on a day when the FBI took down its software that kept a dangerous virus from infecting computers--why would we get rid of that protection?

--But Kathleen and I had a great e-mail exchange.  She's planning to use my poems in a workshop that she offers.  That idea brings me such joy.

--I'm going to offer her workshop participants a deal on my chapbooks.  I'll make readers here the same offer:  get my first chapbook for $6.00 (original cover price $8.95, but $10.00 from the publisher now) and my second for $10.00 (originally $12), or get them both for $15.00.  Plus I'll pay for shipping.  Christmas will be here before we know it.  Order now!  I'll honor this offer until Labor Day ends, the unofficial end of summer.

--Last night, after deleting strange/corrupted links from my blog, I went to my boot camp exercise class.  It's held on the 8th floor of a hospital where my little gym exists (my little gym began life by being a place that educated heart attack patients in new ways of living life).  It's one of the higher points in Ft. Lauderdale.  As I did jumping jacks, I saw a flock of parrots (the tiny green kind) swoop and swerve.  It made me insanely happy.

--I wonder if they could see me.  I wonder what they would have thought.  I like the idea that seeing humans working out makes them happy in the same way that their flight makes me happy.

--I got home to find my pecans had been delivered.  I'm a Southern girl who needs a supply of pecans.   But lately, the price has skyrocketed, for a variety of reasons.  Happily, Koinonia Partners offers a great deal (go here for a variety of options).  And I'm supporting the social justice group that helped bring racial integration to Georgia and created Habitat for Humanity (more here).

--My grandmother used to have a pecan tree, and I remember one Thanksgiving when I collected pecans and shelled them and filled our freezer (my grandmother had already filled her freezer with the bumper crop that came that year).  I miss that tree, which had to be cut down.  I miss my grandmother.  But she would be happy that I'm supporting American farmers with my pecan purchase.  I'm happy too.

--All in all, it could have been a worse first day of classes in our Summer quarter.  We had enough chairs for all the students (last week this time, I wasn't sure we would).  The students who came to me with problems presented problems that were easily solved.  My blogsite and documents haven't been corrupted, as far as I can see.  I submitted a submission to Rattle for their Speculative Poetry section (sci-fi and alternate realities, a genre I experiment with occasionally).  I saw parrots.  And I have 5 pounds of pecans to keep in the freezer.

Monday, July 9, 2012

If You Think You Don't Have Time to Cook, or Money

During this week's On Being episode, Krista Tippett interviewed chef Dan Barber.  She asked what he would say to someone who has children and a job and who sees pre-packaged food as a salvation of sorts because there is no time to cook and the pre-packaged food is cheaper anyway.

He replied, " . . .if I said to you that 25 years ago, you know, with all the time spent on TV, we're going to spend another four hours a day on average on the Internet, and you would say, 'Wow, I can't believe we'd fine four hours in the day.' I'd say, not only people are going to find four hours, but 95 percent penetration of Internet use for 4.5 hours a day or whatever it's up to today average, you would say that's absolutely crazy. Nobody will spend that time, nobody has that time in the day. Well, we figured out how to do it. So the question comes down to priorities. To what extent is cooking and eating and all the rest of the things that are attached to that, to what extent does that become a priority? And if it is a priority, you make the time.

It goes hand in hand with the amount of money you spend because what we're talking about — and I don't want to skirt around it; I think it's a big issue. It's more expensive. There's no question about it. You're paying the real cost of growing food. Locally, it's usually more expensive. So the question is, again back to the Internet example or cellphone use, 25 years ago, if I said there'd be 95 percent penetration in cable television, you all would have said, 'That's nuts. We have free television. Who is going to be able to find $125 a month extra?' You all would have agreed with Krista, right? I would say, not only that, you're going to find another $125 for cellphone use in disposable income. Everyone would say, 'Oh, $250 extra? Nobody has that money.' Well, of course, we found it because we found it indispensable without those things. So can we excite this issue around food and pleasure to the extent that people feel the same way about dinner?"

But let's remind ourselves that it doesn't have to cost a lot in terms of time or money to cook at home.  It's fairly easy to roast a chicken, and much cheaper than that rotisserie chicken would be.  It only takes about 25 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken.  Throw some cut up potatoes and carrots in the pan with the roasting chicken, and soon, you'll have a delicious meal.

I could write a whole cookbook of recipes that only take 30-45 minutes to cook, and not much time to assemble beforehand.  But until I get around to that project, there are plenty of cookbooks and websites  with those kind of ideas already in existence.

If you need additional reasons to cook, it's good to remind ourselves of how subversive an activity cooking can be.  We're surrounded by a variety of corporations who would like us to become increasingly unable to feed ourselves, and thus, increasingly reliant on their products they desperately want us to buy.  When we cook lower on the production chain, we subvert that process.

If we want to be truly subversive, we can grow more of our own food, or if we're lucky enough to live near them, we can support smaller-scale farmers.

And if we want to be subversive to the ninth power, we can turn off our televisions and electronic devices.  We can set the table.  We can talk to each other.

We could even invite others to our table.  Now that could be a culture changing, culture challenging act!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Workplaces Celebrate

On my theology blog, I've been thinking about charitable giving, not only of money, but also time.  How would the world change if we donated 10% of our time to charitable and justice activities?

I've also been thinking about careers.  If I could reshape my life to look any way I wanted, what would a day in the life of ideal self be?  A week?  A year?  More on that later, as I ponder more.  But I'll begin with a question that pokes me again and again.

What would it be like to work for an organization that encouraged me to do social justice work?  I have been known to sneak away from work to serve dinner to homeless men. I return to my office refreshed and renewed in a way that I'm not if I sneak away to have dinner with a friend.

What if I didn't have to sneak away?  What if charitable work was celebrated?

So far, I've been moderately supported in my artistic endeavors at work.  There is no money for travel, but so far, I've been allowed to use computer resources:  composing at my work desk, preparing packets of poems for submissions, that kind of thing.

My friends and I do wonder what would happen if something we composed at work went on to earn us fabulous wealth, would the company come after us for some of the money?

You laugh, I know, at the idea of a poet earning anything.  But I'm putting together a memoir.  What if I become the next Kathleen Norris or that woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, to make this analogy work better.  Would my for-profit college want some of my profits?

I shall worry about that day when it comes.  In the meantime, I'll continue to write and continue to look for ways to infuse writing, along with my other values, into my work day.  I'll continue to remind myself to feel gratitude that I'm allowed to do that.  My workplace is not so brutal that I can't write a poem or rearrange my schedule so that I'm free to go off to feed homeless men.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Work-Life Balance from Different Angles

In the past several weeks, when I've been with friends, talk has turned to work, and what we should do with their rest of our lives.

I have several friends who seem to be at the same point.  They sense that one era of their career life has passed, and they're sorting out what should come next.  One friend could keep doing what she's doing, but she's getting increasingly crabby.  One friend hated her last job so much that she just quit without a plan.

Of course, I have other friends who are terrified that the jobs that they love will be taken from them.

I have one friend who loves what she's doing and wants to do it for the rest of her life, but maybe in a different setting.

I have several friends who would love to retire, except we're far too young.

I ate lunch with one friend yesterday who looked at me like I had grown an additional arm when I said, "I wish I could just retire."

She said, "But what would you do with the rest of your life?"

I said that I'd write and work on other creative projects.  She asked, "But could you really do that for the rest of your life?  That's a long time."

I said, "Well, I've spent the last 40 years of my life working on my own creative projects, and I haven't lost interest yet.  So, yes, I could see myself doing my own creative work for the rest of my life.  That would sustain me."

I haven't figured out a way yet for my creative projects to support me financially, but my creative life sustains me intellectually and emotionally.  I was surprised that she was so surprised to find that out.

Maybe one reason why her work life has been so unfulfilling is that she's expected so much of it, and thus, her individual jobs have disappointed.  Whereas I have aspects of my work life, in all its incarnations, that have been fulfilling, but it's never been my be-all and end-all.

And maybe my creative life has continued to be nourishing because it has never had to be my be-all and end-all.  I've always had to balance it with my work life and other obligations.

It's a work-life balance issue that doesn't often find its way into national discussions.

Friday, July 6, 2012

How Many Mosquito Nets Could Your Beer Budget Buy?

During the 4th of July, during a lovely afternoon in the pool, talk turned towards pricey vehicles.  During one day of the last week of school, we'd heard not one, but several people talk of high end vehicles that they'd bought or planned to buy.

My friend said, "Just think about how many hungry children you could feed with that money."

Let me pause here to note that I didn't introduce the social justice turn into the conversation. But once she steered it that way I could not resist.

I had mosquito nets on the brain, since we spent last week raising money to buy them during our Vacation Bible School.  I said, "A mosquito net that protects a child from malaria costs just $4. How many children could we save with our monthly beer budget?"

There was resistance. I knew there would be. I don't want to give up my wine either. My friend said, "Yeah, but a Lexus costs, what, $40,000? That's a lot more than my beer budget!"

I gently pointed out that people drive their cars for many years. How much do we spend on alcohol every year?

My friends conceded my point. I offered to take alcohol money and transform it into mosquito netting if anyone wanted--money laundering of a different sort! The talk moved on to other subjects.

I'm not going into details here--my mom might read this blog!--but suffice it to say, if we donated just half of our alcohol budgets to buy mosquito nets, we'd save a great many children. And we'd be healthier in all sorts of ways.

We could also think about our charitable giving in terms of our retirement plans.  In Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (a theological book I highly recommend), Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat have this interesting approach to charitable giving: "One guidepost we work with is that if we ever find in a given year that we have invested more in our won future by way of retirement savings than we have given away for someone else's present need, there is something terribly wrong. We tend to think the ratio should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor" (page 189).

They have solid theological reasons for their giving, but even my atheist friends feel a strong yearning to bring some justice into this lopsided world.  Most of us have plenty of money that we could be giving away to help bring some balance.  And it's so sobering to realize how far a small amount of money can go, especially in non-industrialized parts of the world.

Once upon a time, I set up all my charitable giving to happen automatically, and then I didn't have to give it much thought unless special fund drives came up.  But earlier this year, my credit card was stolen, and I'm still trying to get my spending back in balance.  I'm spending too much on discretionary items, like beer and books, and not enough on social justice.

Today is the birthday of the Dalai Lama, a good day to recalibrate my spending towards justice.  Our family budgets say so much about us.  I want my family budget to say something different:  fewer items that will be consumed and then forgotten, more mosquito nets!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Chairman Mao Caps and Communist Conquests

Last week, a child came to Vacation Bible School wearing a Chairman Mao cap:  olive green with a red star.  I thought about Communism and Capitalism and all the spectres of my youth that no longer haunt us. 

Or do they?

During the Cold War years, my father and I got into philosophical discussions/arguments about what Communist regimes offer and threaten, and what Capitalism offers.  We were both right, in our ways.  I liked the security that I thought that Communism offers:  no one goes hungry.  They may not have freedom of speech, but at least they have freedom from hunger.  That's what I huffily told my father.

Ah, youth.  How nice to be forgiven for one's know-it-all 19 year old self.

Now, of course, we know that under many a Communist regime, many went hungry together.  Not as much class stratification, perhaps, but far from the utopia that my 19 year old self envisioned.

During the same week that I saw the child in the Chairman Mao cap, I had a discussion with a friend about her family's immigration path.  She comes from a family who immigrated from China to Jamaica, a part of World History that had eluded me.  I didn't realize, until I met my friend, how many Jamaicans of Chinese descent there are.

But her story takes an even more interesting turn.  Her parents went to Canada in the 70's so that if Jamaica fell to the Communists, the rest of the family would have connections in Canada and fleeing the island might be easier.

Yes, let that rest in your brain for a minute:  if Jamaica fell to the Communists . . .

It's easy to laugh now.  We forget how frightening that specter would have been, how realistic it seemed. After all, Nicaragua had fallen.  Cuba had fallen much earlier.  It would not be inconceivable to lose the whole Caribbean to the Communists.

My students laugh when I tell them that President Reagan used to inform us that the Communists had plans to invade the U.S. across the Rio Grande.  If we didn't stop them in El Salvador, we'd have to stop them at the Texas border.

Now we have border battles of different sorts.  Now we worry about a different set of dominoes.

At times, I feel oddly nostalgic for the Cold War days.  It seemed easier then, with enemy lines more clearly drawn.  We knew where all the nuclear weapons were; we couldn't do anything about them but feel frightened, but at least we could monitor them and keep track.

I wonder if older people then felt nostalgic for World War II days.

And what about this time will make us feel nostalgic in 40 years?  Will terrorists seem an easier foe than whatever we're facing then?  Will we feel nostalgic yearnings for the early years of the escalating pace of global warming?  Will we miss the last years of easy oil and natural gas?