Friday, August 31, 2012

Bad Manners Night and Classroom Electronics

I was talking to a friend who teaches at a state university--not the flagship university, but not the teeny-tiny regional backwater either.  She's in a First Year Experience kind of program:  all the entering first-year students go into these classes where they read the same book and learn to write college-level papers and are guided through college-coping skills.

She told me about an experiment she's trying.  After years of banning cell phones and texting and more and more draconian punishments, she decided to give the students ownership.  First, she led discussion sessions where students analyzed why they wanted to text during the middle of this expensive educational experience.  She had them try an experiment:  for one class, they would use no electronic devices.  In fact, she had them all take notes by hand.  She reminded them that it was just for one hour.  They never had to do it again, if they didn't want to.

They tried an alternate experiment.  For one day, they had no rules when it came to electronics.  They could text, they could make and take calls, they could update their social media sites.

It reminds me of my dad's experiment which my family still remembers vividly:  Bad Manners Night.  For one dinner, we could behave however we wanted.  We could pick food up with our hands.  We could put our faces in our plates.  We could slurp and chomp and chew vigorously with mouths wide open.  Suddenly, we understood why etiquette rules exist.

The students decided that they liked the electronics-free class better.  They were amazed at how much more information they retained when they took notes by hand.

My friend, their teacher, gently reminded them that they didn't need to remember and memorize every little particle of every piece of information from every class.  She's noticed that each year's students seem increasingly frantic and concerned about retaining information.  They record and take notes and panic when they can't remember.  She tries to get them to focus on determining what's important to remember and what's not.

I'll be interested to hear how her experiment progresses as the semester continues.  Will the students continue to ban electronics from their classroom?  Will they decide that they want the freedom to type quickly?

And I'll be interested to hear about this kind of experiment in future years.  What would my friend do if her class had a fairly even split, if half the class wanted to use electronics and half wanted to ban them?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tenaciousness and Tailspins

This week continues to be a rollercoaster, but I want to remember that in the midst of it all, the universe sends me encouraging messages.  Earlier this week, I got an acceptance notice from Rattle.  Yesterday, my editor at the magazine The Lutheran called to ask if I was still interested in writing an article that I pitched earlier.

Of course I am.  And in an interesting twist, the article is about Advent, that liturgical time before Christmas.  You may remember that just the day before, I wrote these paragraphs in this blog post

"So, I’m working on a poem that has characters dealing with news of impending job loss in a variety of ways: buying musical instruments, renewing a passport, putting up the Christmas tree—that last one was my strange urge after I hung up the phone with my boss and HR, after learning the my job was one of the ones lost to restructuring.

I didn’t put up the tree, but some festive, twinkling lights would be good right now. Maybe I’ll just play my Christmas CDs. I find them soothing. I often turn to them in times of stress. They lull my inner voice of defeat right into submission."

I write that paragraph and that poem one day, and the next day, an editor asks if I'm willing to plunge myself into Advent as I write an article about having a more contemplative, creative time before Christmas.

Let me hasten to say that the payment for the article is not such that I say, "Swell.  I'll take the severance package that my current job offers me, and I'll launch my writing ship into these waters."

I try so hard not to be bossy, not to order God/the universe around.  I am willing to be surprised and delighted, should God/the universe see fit to send me such a contract.

In the meantime, I take heart from these words from Leslie's blog post.  She has been thinking of the Olympics, particularly the swimming events, as metaphor for the writing life:

"But I decided that the major difference in the writing world is that our walls are arbitrary: no one really knows where the end of the race is, as we’re swimming through. It could be a sprint, it could be a marathon. That wall could show up in front of you at any moment, and Michael Phelps could be in a different part of the pool right then—on lap 2000 to your lap 55…but the wall shows up in front of you: You wrote a vampire book right when vampire books are taking off! You meet the editor of a small press on an airplane and she happens to love generational novels about mothers and daughters and you happen to have finished yours! Your book gets selected for the lead review in the New York Times Book Review! The wall is right there.

So, I think our walls move around and are arbitrary and maybe we’re all in the same pool, but we’re each swimming our own events. Let Micheal Phelps do his thing, while you do yours. The wall will show up…as long as you stay in the pool. Keep swimming. Tread water if you must, but stay in the pool."

Stay in the pool.  What a great metaphor, a great reminder.

When I was going through old e-mails, I noticed that I was wrestling with discouragement then, too.  I was finding wisdom from Julia Cameron's Finding Water:  The Art of Perseverance.  On Tuesday, after a particularly difficult day at work, I found comfort there again.  Here are some quotes to keep you going:

"It is not healthy for me as an artist to be tuned to the inner movie, always watching 'what if, if only I had's' as they unspool on the inner screen." (p. 39)

"Don't quit right before the miracle." (p. 41)

"So much of the trick with a creative career is maintaining optimism and forward motion.  So much consists of doing the next right thing, however tiny.  Often we get discouraged because we are unable, left to our own devices, to see a next right step.  Discouragement acts as blinders.  This is where friends come in handy.  This is where brainstorming matters."  (p. 63)

"It is risky, block-inducing business, thinking about the odds stacked against us, the people we should have known, the times we should have been more astute politically.  When we compare ourselves to others, there will always be someone who is doing better than we are.  There will always be someone who is more successful, who has played his or her cards 'right' while we have bungled ours." (p. 113)

Julia Cameron give us lots of quotes from others.  Here are two of my favorites:

Kenneth Branagh:  "Friendship is one of the most tangible things in a world which offers fewer and fewer supports." (p. 70)

Maurice Setter:  "Too many people miss the silver lining because they're expecting the gold." (p. 71)

May the universe send you all sorts of inspirations as you stay in the pool, treading water and swimming laps and getting ever stronger.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hurricane Katrina Memories

Seven years ago, New Orleans was being slammed by hurricane Katrina.  I didn't watch it happen in real time, or even see much about it.  I remember hearing a radio snippet for a brief time when the power blipped on and then blipped off again.  The levees had been breached, but had not broken.  We know how that was about to turn out.

No, we were dealing with this:

It's a downed ficus tree with my spouse and his chain saw in the foreground of the picture.  The standing tree stretched across the whole back border of our fence.  The downed tree took up our whole back yard.

The pictures are grainy, because they've been scanned and saved through many formats.  What you can't see underneath the green at the lower right is a smushed shed.

The picture below gives a bit of a sense of perspective.  Look to the left of the picture, and you'll see my spouse by the fence.  You can see the twisted trunk of the tree rising in the center of the picture.

Some day, I'll scan the rest of the pictures.  We've got a great picture of the tree on top of the shed, very Wizard of Oz.
Of course, we lost most everything in that shed.  But it could have been much worse.  The tree brushed the wall of our house as it gently fell over, after a day of soaking rain, but it didn't go through the roof or the windows.  I'm still not sure what prevented that.

We spent a week cleaning up what we could, and then the insurance folks finally got in touch with us, and we used the insurance payment to have an arborist company finish the job.  We never could have done the trunk grinding by ourselves.

I have not written many poems about specific hurricanes, but hurricanes do swirl through my body of work.  They make such great metaphors, after all.

Here's a poem I wrote last century, around 1996.  I think it still holds up relatively well:

Weather Wife

The hurricane flirts with us; like a reluctant
suitor, the storm cannot decide whether or not to commit
to us. It won’t even make a definitive date.
We watch it vacillate, wonder
if it might decide to court another.

Why do these storms always arrive at night?
They party with Caribbean island after island,
leaving the coastal wife watching the clock
and waiting for its arrival, keeping the lights
lit and the supper warm.

The storm should sneak in, with a whisper of wind,
A dozen roses of rain, leaving a bit of sleep
to the exhausted wife of a coastline.
Instead, the hurricane roars in, renouncing
all others to embrace us fully.

Like a battering spouse, it smacks
us again and again. Not content to just hit
until we back down, it smashes
us to unconsciousness and rips
our most beloved possessions to shreds.

We clean up the damage while we try to soothe
the little ones. We try to convince
ourselves that it won’t happen again. The weather woos
us with calm surf and skies full of sunshine.
We continue in this marriage. We cannot divorce
ourselves to head to the passionless calm
of a chillier climate.

If you want a book-length treatment of hurricane Katrina in poems, I recommend  two wonderful books. Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler does amazing things, an astonishing collection of poems that deal with Hurricane Katrina. I love the way that Katrina comes to life. I love that a dog makes its way through these poems. I love the multitude of voices, so many inanimate things brought to life (a poem in the voice of the Superdome--what a cool idea!). I love the mix of formalist poetry with more free form verse and the influence of jazz and blues music. An amazing book.

In Colosseum, Katie Ford also does amazing things. She, too, writes poems of Hurricane Katrina. But she also looks back to the ancient world, with poems that ponder great civilizations buried under the sands of time. What is the nature of catastrophe? What can be saved? What will be lost?

Here's a more recent poem, written years after after Hurricane Wilma (which wreaked devestation in 2 months after Katrina, just after we had finished up our hurricane Katrina clean-up) when I found myself weeping in the car, flooded by post-hurricane despair, even though the clean-up had been done and regular life mostly restored:

What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes

You expected the ache in your lazy
muscles, as you hauled debris
to the curb, day after day.

You expected your insurance
agent to treat
you like a lover spurned.

You expected to curse
your bad luck,
but then feel grateful
when you met someone suffering
an even more devastating loss.

You did not expect
that months, even years afterwards
you would find yourself inexplicably
weeping in your car, parked
in a garage that overlooks
an industrial wasteland.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tailspins: Tropical Storms and Other Untetherings

Yesterday’s weather was worse than what we experienced during the closest approach of tropical storm Isaac. That is sometimes (often?) the way: the tail of the storm lashes more severely than the center of the event.

It seems like an apt metaphor for much of life. I think I’ve weathered the storm, only to find myself sinking below the flooding rains that come afterward.

Yesterday we had rains that brought floods that were worse than any we’ve suffered in recent hurricanes. We had a storm band with heavy rains parked over the east coast of Florida for most of the day. Chaos ensued.

Now it is time to get back to daily life. But still, there is clean-up to be done.

Similarly at work, it’s difficult to know exactly how to prioritize. I’ve made the easy decisions: giving classes to faculty who are already on hand and able to take the classes left unstaffed by recent layoffs (these are classes that will start in Fall quarter, in early October).

Now for the harder part: Which adjuncts should I think about hiring? Will other hiring decisions impact adjunct availability? Will I be here?

I had planned to take time off to go to Lutheridge for our annual retreat to plan the creativity retreat. Will I be able to go or will I need to be here to interview for my job? If I don’t get this job, should I not travel so as to save money? Or should I go, so as to get some clarity and calm? I’ll have vacation time to burn up, since it will all evaporate on September 26, if I'm not the one chosen for the new position.

Right now I need to wait a few days to see what develops, as I reach out to possible adjuncts and think of staffing variations. I’ll see what develops on the job search front; I’ve alerted my fellow retreat planners that my life has been disrupted, so that if I can’t go, they’ve had some time to get used to the idea.

I got a kind message from the universe that reminds me that there is other business needing my attention. Rattle accepted one of my poems! I’ve been submitting to them for a long time, and while they’ve sent kind comments on rejections, this will be the first poetry acceptance.

My inner voice of defeat (usually drowned out by either my inner optimist or my inner apocalypse gal) thinks about how long I’ve been trying, not about the success part. My inner voice of defeat wonders how long it will be before I achieve my book-with-a-spine goal, if I keep going at this rate. My inner voice of defeat is fond of bringing up the precarious state of publishing. My inner voice of defeat says, “Who cares? No one reads poetry anyway.”
I hate my inner voice of defeat.
Nothing defeats my inner voice of defeat like making some submissions, or even writing a poem. So, I’m working on a poem that has characters dealing with news of impending job loss in a variety of ways: buying musical instruments, renewing a passport, putting up the Christmas tree—that last one was my strange urge after I hung up the phone with my boss and HR, after learning the my job was one of the ones lost to restructuring.

I didn’t put up the tree, but some festive, twinkling lights would be good right now. Maybe I’ll just play my Christmas CDs. I find them soothing. I often turn to them in times of stress. They lull my inner voice of defeat right into submission.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry On

Last week was quite a rollercoaster of a week.

The week began wonderfully: on a sailboat in the Chesapeake Bay, in the midst of nature and my family, being reminded of all that I like about the world and my place in it.

I was home for all of a half hour on Wednesday before I got the call. It was my boss, who said, "I have HR here with me."

My first thought: nothing good ever comes after that statement. My second thought: I wish I had saved more money.

I was told of restructuring at work. I'm luckier than most. In the new organization, I can apply for a new job that's much like my old job. I should know the outcome in the next month.

Others will not be so lucky. At our school, 45 people lost their jobs, 21 of them faculty. At our nationwide network of schools, 800 people lost their jobs. Last week a tough week--and I was only on campus for 2 days.

I've wept with the faculty who got the worst kind of news; we're losing 5 people from my department. I've wept for my youthful enthusiasm that believed that jobs in higher ed would be abundant and if not lucrative, at least fairly paid. I've commiserated with people who have survived this round of job cuts, but who wonder when they will be next.

And then, just to make life interesting, just in time for the 20th anniversary of hurricane Andrew and the 7th anniversary of hurricane Katrina, we've had tropical storm Isaac. Happily, the storm lost strength as it swept towards us. I don't really understand why, but I'm grateful.

I've updated my job search materials and applied for my job in the new work structure. I've sorted through piles and piles of paper. I've cooked and baked and taken naps. Am I ready for this week?

Our restructuring has left me with 25 sections to staff. I'll work on that. I'll take breaks from doing that whenever anyone shows up at my office to commiserate, to weep, to plan for the future. I have tissues, tea, mugs, and an electric kettle.

My English friend ended an e-mail by writing "Keep calm and carry on." I copied out that saying and posted it above my desk. I shall remember an earlier Englishwoman, Julian of Norwich, who is perhaps most famous for writing: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." I will hum that Jimmy Buffet tune: "Breathe in, breathe out, move on." I will hope that New Orleans is not about to have a hurricane Katrina experience again. I will pray for all of us to find the strength to weather the storms that batter us.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Little House in the Big Hurricane Country

Yesterday, I decided not to go to spin class so that we could batten down the hatches.  Of course, the time period where we were dodging storms to shutter our windows was the worst weather of the day.  The afternoon was cloudy, but relatively calm.

Still, I enjoyed the process of securing our property--very Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The most vivid parts of the Little House series, what I remember most is the process of getting ready for winter, getting everything prepared as blizzard season closes in.

And we will have tropical storm conditions.  I was awakened early this morning by a wind gust.  I like that I'm not worried about the hurricane shutters being ripped off the house, the way I would if we left them open.  They look like metal awnings, and it's easy for wind to get under them when they're open.  A big enough wind means they're torn from the hinges.  And we may have a big enough wind today and tomorrow.

I've been a little worried about losing power completely, and I have a big application due on Monday or Wednesday, depending on whether or not my deadline is 5 calendar days or 5 business days.  I may write in more detail later, but basically, on Wednesday, I was told of workplace restructuring and how I must apply for a version of my job in the new organization. 

I didn't want to risk missing the deadline because of storm disruptions, so I spent hours yesterday working on application materials.  In a way, it's good.  As I updated my CV, I updated my website, which I've been meaning to do.  I keep my job search materials ready to go, as my dad trained me to do, just in case an opportunity comes along.  Still, I hadn't updated anything since January.  But updating the CV didn't really take all that time.  It was updating the various versions of the CV and writing the cover letter and filling out the online application and reformatting everything that I uploaded to the online application--the whole process took much of a morning.

But it's good to get it done.

I always feel a bit of manic anxiousness as a storm approaches.  I want to watch the radar, even when it's not changing.  I consult all the websites.  I want to go to the beach to watch the clouds and the waves and the wind.  I feel cooped up, even when the wind is calm.  Especially when the wind is calm.

When a storm approaches, I can't just settle down and read a book.  I'm not sure why.  I can't sit still for long.  So, with my short attention span, it seemed the perfect time to do some sorting.

I tackled the piles of papers, some of which I haven't looked through in decades.  I wanted to check my various desk cubbyholes, my files that I haven't stashed away into a filing cabinet.  I looked through almost a decade of assorted photos.  I discovered all sorts of drafts of work.  Once upon a time, I kept every copy of every draft.  I didn't trust the computer to store my work.  I wanted to chart all the changes, in case I changed my mind.

I've changed.  I still don't entirely trust the computer, but I have various back ups stored on various drives.  I'm tired of storing all this paper.

As I sorted and moved all that evidence of my writing life into the recycling bin, I felt a bit of sadness creeping in.  I discovered the file of letters from agents from the last time I tried to get one of my novels published.  Instead of saying, "Hey, I really tried," I focused on the failure to secure an agent.  It was easy to cycle into a full-bore tailspin where I thought, "I once had such promise, and it's all come to this!"

Happily I found a paper file of e-mail exchanges that I had with my writer/monastic friend in Charleston.  Years ago, we spent a season sending each other a poem every Friday.  I remembered writing the poems, but I didn't remember the exchange.  I loved reading the accompanying e-mails.  I think of that time period as a time of blissful writing and accomplishment, but the e-mails show I was still subject to doubt, still frustrated with not being where I thought I should be, still wondering if I should be doing more.

I plan to write to that friend to see if she wants to try a Friday poetry exchange again.  Yesterday, after spending the morning writing my job application materials and not the short story I planned to write, I rescheduled the meeting with my local friend who writes fiction.  I didn't cancel, mind you.  I simply decided that I needed an additional week because of unexpected work demands.

Those e-mails with their accompanying poems helped restore my peace.  It was good to remember that I can write poems, even as life takes twists and turns.  It's good to remember that I do have a writing network.  I have friends who cheer me on; I found several file folders of e-mails and cards that cheered me on in the past.  It's good to remember that a lot of the writing that I'm doing now is not anything I could have even imagined a decade ago.

I still have much sorting to do.  I have a filing cabinet of teaching materials from over a decade ago, for example.  I'm not likely to need those handouts, some of them from grad school (with that purple ink from the ditto machine).  I have decades worth of financial data, but I'm not emotionally ready to look at my retirement account statements from the turn of the century yet.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

So Much Depends Upon the Mountains of Cuba

So, if a hurricane watch was posted just 10 miles south of you, how would you prepare? 

I'm baking cookies, butterscotch bars!  There's a reason that I'm not a skinny woman:  I traditionally respond to stress by baking.

Of course, I have a good reason:  I'm supposed to be bringing sweets to a gathering at a friend's house later this morning.  If I bake something, I don't have to stop at a store.  If I don't have to stop at a store, I have more time for hurricane prep.

The question still remains:  what are we facing here?

So much depends on the mountains of Cuba.  If the storm misses those mountains, which looks possible to me, it will be stronger as it enters the waters between Cuba and South Florida, and it's likely to be further to the east than we were all thinking it would be yesterday.  If if moves along the mountain ridges of Cuba, all of the southern parts of the Florida peninsula and the Keys will likely feel less of a storm.  Everyone further to the north will need to be on notice, and I'll be glad I don't have to make a decision about the Republican gathering.

We've had experience with storms that weren't supposed to be anything, only to find ourselves sitting in the dark after the electricity went out, listening to tree branches thunking on the ground, wishing we'd shuttered the windows.  We've moved every possible flying object out of the yard, shuttered the windows, and watched hurricanes head to the Carolinas.

It might make sense to wait for later updates, but by then, it may be too late.  There's not much water between Cuba and South Florida.  And the storm is huge.  I expect to be feeling the outer bands very soon.

We'll probably go ahead and air on the side of safety.  We'll shutter the windows because it's not that hard.  We have the kind of shutters that look like awnings, and shuttering the windows protects the windows and means that the wind is less likely to rip the shutters from the house. We'll move potential missives to the shed.

Should we start filling up every container with water?  We'll wait for later updates to see.  One thing I've learned:  if a big storm comes and disrupts the water source, and even if we're extremely careful with our water supplies, we won't have enough water.

I'm anticipating a category 1 hurricane.  Hurricane Katrina was a category 1 hurricane when it crossed over us and went to demolish New Orleans.  We lost a huge tree, which didn't go through the house, thankfully, but it ripped out public water utility pipes and power lines.  It took us weeks to recover--just in time for Hurricane Wilma, which we were told was a strong category 1 (I have my doubts; I think it was stronger), but did frightful damage.

Time to take the butterscotch bars out of the oven!  Shall I bake something else?  Make a pot of chili?  We've got a rain band over us right now, so I can't start securing the property yet.  Hmmm.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Fragments: The Hurricane Edition

I'm still having trouble thinking in essay form.  I'm having trouble sleeping past 2 a.m.  Is it the disruption of summer vacation coming to an end?  The reorganization plans announced at work?  The tropical storm to our south? 

Whatever the reason, today's blog post will be a collection of thoughts with a hurricane theme.

--Twenty years ago today, hurricane Andrew roared onshore.  I remember seeing the pictures and thinking about the destructive capacity of hurricanes.  We'd recently seen similar pictures from hurricane Hugo, and I wondered what new phase of weather we'd entered.

--Little did I know that we were enjoying the end of the Holocene era, along with the end of one of the few eras of stable climate the earth has enjoyed.

--If we're lucky, this tropical storm Isaac will dump some rain on Georgia, which is one of the areas of the U.S. suffering extreme drought. 

--Why am I hoping for rain for Georgia?  I'm worried about both the peanut crop and the pecan crop.  We're not big peanut butter eaters, but I'm tempted to stockpile peanut butter.

--Peanut butter is a staple of our hurricane supplies. 

--Is it time to start thinking about supplies?  Not yet.  The main thing we'd need to do is to fill up as many water containers as possible.

--Hurricanes make me realize how vulnerable our various infrastructures are.  Even if you bury water pipes and electric lines underground, they're still disruptable.  Trees topple, and we realize how far their roots have extended as they take the water pipes above ground with them.  Underground electric lines are vulnerable to flooding, and we get flooding here during our normal torrential rains.

--My spouse and I watched national coverage of Isaac on a weather channel.  The forecaster talked about evacuating the Keys.  My spouse and I laughed.  Those Keys folks never leave.

--Of course, we don't either.  When the warnings go up, out of town friends call to see if we've left.  I say, "I'd rather ride out the storm in my house than on I 95."  It's over 5 hours before we get to the mainland.  Evacuating is not possible.

--Shelter in place:  those words have come to be freighted with all sorts of meaning for me.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Short Reflections on a Sailing Trip

I've just returned from our annual sailing trip with my sister, her husband, and their child (my one and only young nephew, unlike the nephews from my husband's side of the family, who are grown). I have returned to find a hurricane bearing down on us as we remember hurricane Andrew that wiped out part of South Florida 20 years ago. Oh, yes, and there's more work chaos than usual, which I may blog more about later.

I worry that my life is about to tip from absurdist theatre to full-blown tragedy. Who would be my dramaturge? Will my life be Ibsenesque? Something Arthur Miller-ish? Over the top Tennessee Williams?

But, before I get bogged down in this drama, let me record some of the highlights of my trip.

--When we first started sailing with my sister's family, back when it was just my sister and brother-in-law, sailing was a new experience for me. I'd only been on a sailboat once or twice. It was in an unfamiliar part of the country, the Chesapeake Bay. We didn't always have good weather: hot, humid, breezeless days made me wonder what the appeal could be. But then one day we had perfect weather, and we were hooked.

--Now that we've been sailing every summer for almost 10 years, it feels more like a tradition, like a return to a homeplace.

--Is it an annual event if it happens yearly, but not at the same time each year?  We've more often gone sailing in June, but sometimes as late as September.  We usually luck out with great weather.  A cool front came through Friday night, so thankfully, it was not scorchingly hot.

--We left on Saturday, August 18.  Apparently, everyone else left that day too.  We got to the airport at 5:40 a.m. to find that the security line had already gone to the overflow holding area.  Sigh.

--On the way back, I stood with my arms above my head for the full-body x-ray.  The TSA agent said, "Now do a cartwheel."  It took me a minute to process what he was saying and to realize he was kidding.  In that moment, I thought, I wonder if he'd let me do a round off instead.

--This year we added both crabbing and fishing to our fun activities. We had no luck with fishing. We had phenomenal luck with crabbing. We ate crabs that had been caught an hour earlier: so delicious!

--We also caught a fish in our crab basket. It made me wonder how much food one could catch in a crab basket, a passive hunting, if one had to.

--I thought my 6 year old nephew might object to killing and eating the crabs. On the contrary, he wanted to eat them all. No talk of keeping them as pets; I suspect it's because they're too odd looking.

--I love having a chance to read. This year, I read 3 books that have how-we-live-now themes:

   --The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Lysistrata for a modern age!

   --Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfield: how we live now, if we're artists and fathers and folks at midlife living in Tribeca. Linked short stories!

    --My favorite: True Believers by Kurt Andersen, a novel which shifts between the 60's and the year 2014, with lots of interesting observations about both the past and the present, about our perceptions, about reality and the way popular culture, particularly James Bond, influences us.

--I played Blackjack with my brother-in-law as a dealer. I've never played with a dealer before, just with players betting each other.  I now understand why the house usually wins, but skillful players can make some money.

--I am not one of those skillful players.

--My nephew likes to play card games of all kinds, and he often makes them up as we go along:  "OK, now put down 4 cards, but you can't look at them.  Put three cards in a pile over there.  You can use them.  How many cards do you want me to give you.  OK, now you have to give me 3 cards because my card is higher than yours."  Dizzying.

--I learned a lot more about sailing this year.  This was the first year that I steered the boat.  It was perfect conditions for learning to steer:  very few boats on the bay and fairly calm winds.  I also learned a bit about letting out sails and bringing them in and helped lash the boat to the marina moorings.

--It was good to feel stronger and able to move around quickly enough to help.  It was good to feel my fear of wrecking the boat, but to go ahead, and to realize that catastrophe won't necessarily follow.

--I love the design of sailboats, so elegant, so full of purpose, and so beautiful.

--I saw lots of innovations and wonder why they can't be modified for land.  There are solar panels that are slim and capable of powering a whole boat--and they aren't much larger than your Kindle.  There are tiny propellors that spin in the wind and convert that energy to energy a boat can use. 

--My nephew wears his Spiderman costume often, several times a day.  Sometimes he wears a black cape.  Sometimes he has gloves.  And he has several pairs.  When I think about dressing for the day, it's not too different from adult behavior.  Some times, we need that costume that gives us courage.

--What costume shall give me courage today?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apocalypse in Poems

I've had Kathleen Flenniken's collection of poems, Plume, on my shelf for several months now.  But it was reading Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flatsthat finally compelled me to read Plume.  Having spent time with Iversen at the Rocky Flats site, I moved to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation with Flenniken.  Both books were powerful.  Flenniken's made me weep.

Maybe it was just the cumulative effect of reading so many apocalyptic narratives in one month, or maybe it was the heartbreak contained in Flenniken's poems.  I started reading in my office on a sleepy July afternoon.  When I got to the suite of poems, "Flow Chart," that present the impact of the death of her best friend's father, I broke down.  Part of my mood was caused by knowledge of so much loss in the atomic age.  Part of it was the cumulative impact of this year that seems to be tinged with so much loss on a personal level (death and lay offs at work, to name a few).  Part of it was the exhaustion of so many extreme weather events in such a short time that make me exhausted for the planet.  However much of the emotional impact on me as a reader came from the power of Flenniken's poetry.

In her review of the book, Jeannine Hall Gailey says, "What might be surprising to readers is how different this book is from Flenniken’ first book, Famous, a book of personal narratives about life in the domestic sphere – a quiet book almost modest in scope. If you enjoyed that book, you might not be really prepared for this second book, which is sweeping in terms of trying to capture a history, personal, political, and scientific. While the personal narrative poems still maintain a steady voice here, they are interwoven with lyric landscapes, fragments of historical documents and redacted government files turned into clever erasures, and meditations on the dangers of scientific hubris. The other difference is a palpable sense of threat, of lives at stake, of a dramatic story unfolding in the poet’s capable hands."

I was surprised by how skillfully Flenniken wove all these fragments together.  Some of the poems are taken from government testimony, while others talk about cancers in heartbreaking new ways.  Many of the poems utilize imagery from the landscape in poems that seem fresh.  Flenniken gives us many an interesting historical fact, while transforming the facts into the poetic.  I'll be haunted by the poem, "Atomic Man," about Harold McCluskey's ordeal when he was exposed to so much radiation during an explosion that he "is considered the most radioactively contaminated human ever to survive" (note on page 66).  She provides several pages of notes, which give interesting background both historical and in terms of how she composed the poems.

Flenniken makes clear the sacrifice demanded by our nuclear obsessions.  Hers is just the latest in a long list of books that make me question the cost and revisit the past.  I'm sure it won't be the last.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Apocalypse in Pairs, Part 2

Earlier this summer, I read a variety of books with an apocalyptic tone.  Those of you who know me will not be surprised--although I usually mix some non-apocalyptic reading in.  I'm surprised I slept at all as June transitioned into July, and I gobbled up apocalyptic book after apocalyptic book.  As I said yesterday, I was surprised to find how much some of them seemed to fit together.  Yesterday's post talked about 2 collections of short stories, and you might not be surprised that I'd link them together.  But in today's post, I'll talk about a surprising pairing, one fiction,  Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles, and one one non-fiction/memoir, Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.

Walker's book has probably gotten the most publicity.  It was the glowing review in the New York Times that made me request it from the public library.  In this book, the rotation of the Earth slows, at first imperceptibly and then humans experience multiple extra hours in the day.  Yet sixth grade must go on!

I was much more interested in the larger context of the book than in the narrative arc of the 6th grade girl, Julia, who narrates the book.  At first I thought, how wonderful to have extra time in the day.  But the book makes clear that it's actually a curse which will likely mean the end of humans on the planet.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I disliked the narrator.  In fact, I find myself intrigued by the narrator's experiences with the boy she likes and with her parents.  But reading about the pecking orders changing amongst the children bored me rather quickly.  This narrator lacks the pluckiness of a young narrator like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I wanted her to buck up more quickly than she did.

Likewise, I found myself much more interested in the family life of Iversen than in her childhood experiences with boys.  As a narrator, I found Iversen much more compelling than Julia.  But more compelling still was the larger story that Iversen tells.

Iversen places her personal narrative inside a larger history of life in the early decades of the post-World War II nuclear age in America.  She does a beautiful job of explaining the science.  She ranks right up there with Terry Tempest Williams for showing how family and history and the land all intertwine, and like Williams, she's got some lyrical gorgeousness in her writing.  Consider this example:  "The body is an organ of memory, holding traces of all our experiences.  The land, too, carries the burden of all its changes.  To truly see and understand a landscape is to see its depth as well as its smooth surfaces, its beauty and its scars" (page 338).

I first heard of this book when Iversen was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air, a wonderful interview that you can access here, along with other highlights from both the interview and the book.  If you don't have time to read the book, make sure to make time for the interview.

But I read the book in a week-end--it's that compelling and readable.  Likewise, I read The Age of Miracles in a day because I wanted to find out what happened.  But Full Body Burden will stay with me and haunt me much longer.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Apocalypse in Pairs Part 1

As I was reading Colson Whitehead's Zone One, I often wondered if he was trying to do too much, if his material would work better as a short story.  The first story in Maureen F. McHugh's After the Apocalypse shows how well zombies can work as short story material.  I must say, though, it's not one of my favorites of her book of mostly perfect stories.

I don't often read short stories, unless it's a book of linked short stories.  I'm still in awe of what Jennifer Egan did with A Visit from the Goon Squad.  But much as I like teaching the short story, much as I like writing it, I don't always like reading my way through a collection.  Occasionally I read such great reviews that I search out a collection.

I read In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson.  It got dazzling reviews.  It was a slim book.  It seemed to have a bit of an apocalypse theme.  I decided to give it a chance. 

Alas, I didn't like most of the stories.  They were just too slender.  My brain has returned to "Diary of an Interesting Year" again and again.  It's a story set in the near future, as environmental problems have escalated.  A family feels more and more besieged in their home and they set out looking for someplace better.  Their lives get progressively more horrible.

Note to self:  in event of apocalypse, shelter in place.  And save the bullets.  Marauders will come, and you will need them.

McHugh's stories make a similar point.  "After the Apocalypse" shows the hazards of being a woman on the road.  The main character in "Useless Things" does much better by staying in her New Mexico house, even though she can't afford to travel to see her mother in the midwest. 

My brain came back to "Useless Things" many times in the weeks since I've read it.  I loved the story of an artist making her way through hard times.  I loved the ways that it showed that tough times can change us into someone we'd prefer not to be, even though it grieved me to be reminded of that.

With its details of dwindling water, the possibility of this story doesn't seem so far away.  "Special Economics," on the other hand, feels both like a journalistic expose of working conditions in Asia right now and of something completely made up.  The story shows how easy it is to get trapped into modern slavery.  The plucky girls keep us from getting too bogged down in despair.

"The Lost Boy:  A Reporter at Large" is told in a journalistic style, which reminds me of how many ways that a short story writer can play, in ways a novelist cannot.

The other stories didn't stay with me, although they captured my attention as I read them.  This collection is one that I'd like to read again and again.  I'm sure there were things I missed.  I'm sure I'd notice ways that the stories intersected.

But the main reason I'd like to read them again is that McHugh is such a talented writer that the stories are a joy to read.  They're well developed, unlike Helen Simpson's.   It makes me wonder how one collection gets chosen to be heralded, while the other slips by unnoticed.  They've both got merit, and readers would be out there for both.  But for those who want a full-blown apocalypse, Maureen F. McHugh offers a special treat.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Apocalyptic Book Report

Earlier this summer, I read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, an apocalyptic novel where the end of the world comes in the form of a plague which turns people into zombies. In some ways, it’s less a novel than an elegy for all we’ve lost, even though we haven’t lost it yet.

The novel takes place some time after the plague, when the worst appears to be over, when the survivors are trying to clean up New York City. The heavy-duty work has been done, but there are still stragglers, zombies who seem stuck in some moment in their old lives: the man fixing the copy machine, the vitamin store stocker of shelves, the psychiatrist waiting for her next patient who is very late.

Along the way there’s some meditation about what makes these “people” return to a certain moment in their lives. Why spend eternity tending the fry basket? Is it some moment that spoke to them in a certain way, a seminal moment or a moment of sameness? Who can say?

The non-infected are also haunted by the past, by tokens of pre-plague life that they find and discuss. They’re haunted by the future, too. Will it be just like the past? Even now, is there someone writing a TV show that will take place in plague times, turn the zombies into comic foils?

In the end, it’s all illusion, of course, illusion of all different sorts, and the novel talks about all the ways we delude ourselves, during zombie invasions and during normal times. The zombies are a fitting metaphor for all the ways that life consumes us: there are lots of ways to be chewed up and spat out, and the book returns again and again to this metaphor of consumption.

I’ve talked before about the zombie invasion we seem to be seeing in popular culture. What does it signify?

I love the title of Nina Auerbach’s book Our Vampires, Ourselves, and its central premise that we can tell much about our culture by the vampires that we create. For decades we didn’t see many zombies, and now we do.

Are pop culture creators pondering the pace of modern life which makes so many of us feel like zombies? Do we feel consumed by some plague which turns us into shaky monstrosities of our former selves? Are we so haunted by Alzheimer’s disease that we create zombies so that we can talk about what it means to be not-human while still inhabiting a human body?

During the age of AIDS, before protease inhibitors bought so many people so much more time, we saw lots of pop culture vampires. In this information, high-tech age, we see low tech zombies. Hmm.

Tomorrow:  Apocalypse in Pairs:  Part 1--the short stories (including one with zombies!)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Poems for a Time of Drought

Here we are, nearing the end of summer, and part of the nation burns while the rest of us bake.  So, it's time for some poems from desert places and past droughts.

I wrote this one first, and it appeared in The Ledge:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote this one a bit later, and I've often wondered if it is too similar to the first one.  Is it a revision of the first one?  But I've decided that although they share similar themes, they are distinctly different.  It appeared in Sojourners.

Baptismo Sum

In this month of dehydration,
we keep our eyes skyward, both to watch
for rain and to avoid the scorn
of the scorched succulents who reproach
us silently, saying, “You promised to care.”

And so, although we thought we could stick
these seedlings in the ground and leave
them to their own devices, we haul
hoses and buckets of water to the outer edges
of the yard where the hose will not reach.

The idea of a desert seduces,
as it did the Desert Fathers, who fled
the corruption of the cities to contemplate
theology surrounded by sand
and stinging winds. My thoughts travel
to the Sanctuary Movement, contemporary Christians
who risked all to rescue illegal aliens.
I admire their faith, tested in that desert crucible.
I could create my own patch of desert in tribute.

Yet deserts do not always sanctify.
I think of the Atomic Fathers
who hauled equipment into the New Mexico
desert and littered the landscape with fallout
which litters all our lives, a new religion,
generations transformed in the light of the Trinity test site.

I back away from my Darwinian, desert dreams.
The three most popular religions
in the world emerged from their dry desert
roots, preaching the literal and symbolic primacy
of water, leaving the arid ranges behind
as they flowed towards temperance.

I cannot reject the religion of my ancestors,
who spent every day of their lives
remembering their baptism before heading to the fields
to make the dirt dream in colors.

  The careful reader (or future grad student writing a dissertation) will notice the old familiar themes:  apocalypse and the effort to live in hope, atomic issues, gardens, farm families, intellectual lives and a variety of spiritual connections.

I'm offline for the next few days, but never fear:  I've written some reviews of my apocalyptic summer reading for your enjoyment!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Responding to Darkness: Politics or Art?

I've been interested to observe my reaction to Mitt Romney's choice of a running mate.  Once, when I was younger, I'd have been so caught up in the events of the past week.  Now, I shrug.  I've felt that way about most political discussions for some time now.

I've been worrying that maybe my attitude signals apathy or numbness. But Beth Adams has written a series of posts over at her blog which gives me comfort.

I wrote more extensively about her ideas in this post on my theology blog.  Part of why I'm pulling back is that the people who want to talk about politics have this raging anger. It's not a righteous anger. It's the kind of anger that so quickly veers to destruction. It feels too dangerous to me. We can't afford it.

I also relate to what Beth says in her second post (the post that has the most relevance to artists):  "What I have realized in the past few years is that, while socio-political issues matter tremendously to me, and I think that political activism is terribly important, for me, at this point, too much immersion in politics kills my creativity. It's pretty much either/or. The energy that it takes for me to be committed and active in politics makes it almost impossible for me to do art or music or write at the level I want to."

She is not calling on artists to withdraw or to avoid voting or anything along those lines.  No, she's calling upon artists to do the transformative work which is so important right now:  "The fact is that we are living in a time when the decision to be an artist, to continue to create in spite of everything that's happening around us, IS a radical political act. This is, I feel, quite a dark time, potentially destructive to the best and most noble aspects of the human spirit. And that's precisely why it is terribly important for artists in all disciplines to continue to create, even when it feels like there's little market and little appreciation for our work. Just doing it, and making the difficult decision to continue to do it -- to live creative lives that celebrate what life is and can be - is both defiant and affirming, and it's crucially important. People need to know that someone they know -- a neighbor, a friend, a cousin -- is committed to the arts. Young people particularly need to know this."

She reminds us that it's not about success, at least not success as our society defines it.  And as a woman who runs a small press, she's well aware of the challenges that artists face in getting their work to a world that so desperately needs it.

I so needed her posts.  It's been a grim week at work, as we face rumors of lay-offs or an even grimmer scenario.  What is coming?  We don't know.

But we never know, do we?  This idea that we have a job that will take us to retirement--that's always been an illusion.  We only know that we have a job today.

Yesterday a colleague was in my office talking about these issues of work and what may be about to fall on our heads.  He stopped, mid-conversation, and said, "How is your poetry coming these days?"

I had a rough draft of a poem on my desk.  I got to work a few days ago with an idea in my head and I thought I'd just sketch out a note for a poem, but then the whole poem came out of me.  Hurrah.

I showed it to him.  We moved from talking about our workplace to our art; he's working on a series of paintings that involve carousel horses.

What a relief to move from talking about rumors to talking about our true work.  In the coming weeks, I need to remember to return to my truest calling.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Prodigal Perseids and Other Generosities

--As I listened to various people talking about Julia Child, again and again people mentioned her generosity, especially in terms of her time.

--When I was younger, generosity wasn't one of those traits I aspired to, or even thought much about.  I wanted to be a great artist (an actor or a writer) or I wanted to change the world like Martin Luther King did.  But generosity?  Now that I'm older, I see how important it is--and what a great agent of social change it could be.

--For those of you who want more about Julia Child, Diane Rehm did a great interview with Bob Spitz, who has just published a biography of Julia Child.

--This bit about another generous soul, Richard Simmons, is also quite intriguing.  I already knew about his work as minister by way of being aerobics instructor.  But I didn't realize he got his start by saving a 18 months worth of tips from his work as a waiter--that's how he bought his first aerobics studio.

--I love these stories of how people reinvented themselves and went places no one would have expected them to go.  I need that message these days.

--Our stairwells at work have a variety of graffiti.  We're an arts school, of sorts, so that doesn't surprise me.  But a week or two ago, this message, in tiny print at my eye level, appeared:  "Dream big and go for it."  Another message I need these days.

--It shouldn't be surprising that I see messages from the universe everywhere I go.  I'm the woman who used to say, "If this radio station plays a U2 song in the next 15 minutes, God is telling me to move back here."

--I have a vision of leaving my most hopeful poems in places where people might find them.  I'm not brave enough to paint them on the stairwell walls--although that does give me an intriguing idea towards all sorts of installation art shows.  No, I have a vision of leaving them in desk drawers in classrooms, and where else?  Hmm.

--It's not the generosity on the scale of Richard Simmons or Julia Child.  But it doesn't have to be my only method of generosity.  I suspect that the next 6 weeks/months at work will offer me many an opportunity to be generous--and to practice being fully patient and present.

--Last night, I glimpsed another strange generosity.  I was trying to help one of my direct reports navigate the payroll system to update her timecard.  To get to her timecard, I went to my list of direct reports.  I had 8 new names!  I've never heard of these people before, so I let the HR department know that something strange is happening.  But hey, if the computer is adding hires instead of taking people off the payroll, maybe that's hopeful.

--And this morning, as I slogged through a summer run in the hot (82 degrees), breezeless pre-dawn by the Atlantic Ocean, I saw a shooting star.  Doesn't that sound more poetic than to say I saw a meteor.  I tried to remember whether or not it could be a Perseid.  We didn't have much chance to view those meteors--it was very cloudy.  But this morning, the universe sends me a prodigal Perseid.

--Once upon a time, I had a friend with small children.  If they saw something wonderful in nature, they'd shout out, "Great show, God!"  This morning, I wanted to shout it.  But I didn't want to startle the other pre-dawn exercisers.

--Of course, those of us who exercise early are used to all sorts of strangenesses.  I once saw a woman runner softly singing the Mass in Latin.  I've seen people walking cats on leashes.  A few weeks ago, I saw a couple who stood up and made gestures.  I prepared for conflict.  Instead, they said, "We just got married."  I said, "May you have a century of happiness!"

--May the universe send more generosities to us today than we can hold in our hands!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Women Who Changed the World: Julia Child

If you think of 20th century women who changed the world, Julia Child might not be the first name that comes to your mind.  Maybe you'd think of Margaret Sanger, or those other activists who gave us control of our fertility, and thus, the rest of our lives.  Maybe you'd think of all those nameless suffragists who won us the right to vote.  Maybe you'd list the women who went to work during World Wars I and II and by exposing women to the joy of earning our own paychecks changed society forever.  Or maybe you have an athlete in mind, someone who proved that having a female body doesn't have to be a handicap.

To be fair, Julia Child would not have always been top of my list either.  But lately, I've been changing my mind.  Today, as we celebrate her 100th birthday, even though she's not with us to celebrate, it's a great day to assess.

Julia Child went on television and showed us that we could cook.  She educated us so that now we think of cooking as more than opening packages and heating.  We take raw ingredients and transform them into meals.

She showed us that we didn't have to be intimidated by a foreign cuisine or by snooty chefs.  She invaded and transformed a male domain as surely as any 20th century athlete did.

I have always thought of Julia Child as a cook and a television personality, but never really as a fellow writer. How nice to discover that side of her.  I didn't really think of her as a writer until I saw the movie Julie and Julia a few years ago.

I was interested in the movie's depiction of women as creative people who have to remake themselves periodically--in fact, that seemed to be the movie's message about the world of work--we'll all have to reinvent ourselves periodically.

I was interested in the idea that each woman was adrift and found herself through cooking--and through writing about her cooking. I spent a lot of time thinking about how small changes in trajectory changed each woman's life so completely.

I had no idea that it took Julia Child so long to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The movie shows the multiple times that she had to make major revisions and how she coped with each twist. I loved the scene where she's thoroughly dejected--nice to see a bit of realism.

What a great movie!  Maybe I'll celebrate her birthday by watching it again.

Many critics have pointed out that it's one of the few movies centered on women that doesn't focus on their romantic lives--very refreshing. Yet at the same time, these women are allowed to have healthy relationships as well as creative ambition--and they're not punished by horrible torture, dismemberment, or death. I loved the fact that Julia Child's body looks like a normal woman's body on the screen--a tall woman's body, but a body with a bosom, with hips, with a large behind--the kind of body one would have as one cooks with all that animal fat. I love the fact that her husband clearly desires her, well into their middle ages. I love that he sees her as a treasure, even as the society in which they live sees her as a bit of a freak.

It's too hot where I live to cook some of her signature dishes.  Boeuf Bourguignon will have to wait.  But we will have a delicious meal that we create by grilling and using our anniversary wood chunks to smoke the meat.  We will toast a love that I hope will be as enduring as the one Julia enjoyed.  I will take courage from the fact that she was well into midlife before she found creative success.  I will take courage from her example of how women can reinvent themselves and transform the world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Modern Love's Lessons

So, we had a small celebration of our anniversary planned.  Nothing fancy, nothing that required reservations 6 months in advance, nothing that required hose or uncomfortable shoes.

My spouse has wanted to go to the Ice Age movie, although in truth, I think it's the Simpsons trailer that he really wanted to see.  Still, it's rare that he wants to go see a movie, and since it was still playing, we decided to go.  We often have good luck with movies on our anniversary.

Last night was not one of those times.  I looked up movie times, but unbeknownst to us, the time we chose was for the 3D version of the movie, which would have cost significantly more.  "That will be $29," the cashier at the ticket window chirped.

My hand, in the process of handing her our credit card, froze.  "Did you say $29?  For a 5:00 show?" I asked.  She nodded.  The spouse and I conferred.

Twenty-nine dollars would buy us some beers at the oceanfront organic brewery.  Twenty-nine dollars would buy some really nice steaks to grill at home.  We decided not to go to the movie.

The tickets would be $14.50 a person.  I've seen very few movies that I thought were worth that.

And who decided that an animated movie should be in 3D?  Isn't their very 2Dness part of the charm?

We went home and grilled ourselves a nice meal with some chunks of apple wood that my spouse had been soaking.  Yum.  We went back to Home Depot and bought some more wood chunks from a variety of trees and some seeds because we're having fun playing with our urban homestead to see how self-sufficient we can be.

It took us a bit of time to shift gears, to decide that we were having a nice anniversary, even though it was different from what we planned.  But in a way, it's a good metaphor for a marriage that lasts many years.  Last night, we were able to shift gears, to decide what was really important, to communicate honestly, and to get to that point quickly. 

If one of us had really wanted to see the movie, we'd have spent a tad more than we had planned.  But since we weren't gung-ho to begin with, it didn't make sense to see the movie.  After all, in less than a year, I'll be able to check it out from our local library--for free.

We could have sulked or pitched a fit or created all sorts of drama.  But why waste that energy?

Maybe some individuals and some marriages thrive with that kind of drama.  Maybe.

But how much nicer it is to admit defeat and to head back for a delicious late summer meal and dreams of veggies from our own little plot of land.

Our anniversary celebration seems to offer lessons for other aspects of life too.  We often have a vision for what we're expecting, and frankly, life often goes in a different direction.  But those different directions can have distinct pleasures and advantages too.  We might miss them if we pout and sulk and pitch temper tantrums.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Anniversary at 24

Twenty-four years ago, I'd have been waking up and getting ready for my 11 a.m. marriage to my college boyfriend, Carl.  We had lots of folks from out of town, an average 8 hour drive away, and we wanted to get married early in the day so that they wouldn't have to spend an extra night in a motel.

Early in the morning, my grandmother ironed my wedding dress.  Below you'll see my grandmother, with my aunt Joyce helping.

Yes, I had a long, white dress.  We got married in the same church in Greenwood, South Carolina where my parents had gotten married in 1962, the same church where my grandfather had been the pastor.  We tried to keep the ceremony and the reception relatively simple.  For example, we chose daisies for our bouquet.  Our reception included sandwiches, so that our out-of-town guests wouldn't have to buy lunch on their way out of town.  We had the best wedding cake I've ever had.
He took my last name, and I took his, instead of one name subsuming the other.  We decided it would be easier to both be Berkey-Abbotts.  We didn't realize how baffling a hyphenated name would still be.  I still like the symbolism, names joined and connected.

For the most part, we've been happy together.  He was a Philosophy major, and I was an English major:  temperamentally we're suited.  We come at social justice issues from a similar direction.  We're artistically suited. 

I don't have a lot of pictures of the two of us together, and I usually don't like the ones I have.  Our formal pictures usually leave us looking like some farm couple just before the Depression hits.  I love the picture below, taken a few years ago when my sister and nephew were visiting.  We ate at Le Tub, and much of our meal consisted of trying to keep my nephew from leaping into the Intracoastal Waterway.  But it was fun.

Below is another one of my favorite pictures, again with my nephew.  They visited at the end of last September.  We went to the Dania Beach Pier (hence my yellow wristband) after eating huge sundaes at Jaxson's.  We spent the morning building sand castles on the beach.  After a perfect day like that, no wonder we look happy.  Yes, happy, still, even all these years later.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Porch Reading

A week ago, we'd have been coming back down to sea level.  My spouse drove down the mountain, much of the way in neutral gear.  It was early on a Sunday, and we were the only ones on the road--why not see how fuel efficient we could be?

Throughout the week, I have missed this porch:

I have missed the peace that comes from unplugging.  I have missed the cool breeze whispering across the mountains.  I have missed the hours that I had to read last week-end.

First I read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.  I'd have rather read The Martian Chronicles, but my colleague REALLY wanted me to read her copy of Fahrenheit 451, so much that she brought it to work and pressed it into my hands.  So, I did.

Much as in high school, I liked it, but it will never be my favorite Bradbury book.  I loved the ending, the vagabonds on the highway, the exiled intellectuals, the ones who have memorized books.

Then I turned my attention to The Bucolic Plague.  What a treat of a book!  A gay couple from Manhattan stumbles across a derelict but beautiful farm for sale.  It's only 4 hours away from their Manhattan apartment.  They can be gentleman farmers!  While keeping their day jobs that pay them so well! There's a quirky town nearby!  And you can well imagine that there will be goats, and there will be chickens, and there will be vegetables.

What sticks with me:  these two men had lots of talents and resources.  Yet when their Etsy type goat soap business takes off, they, too, have trouble filling orders.  When I think of the kind of do-it-yourself kind of alternate lives I want to create, it bogs down at the supply side.  Once, when I was really enjoying making baby quilts, I thought about how many I'd need to sell in a year, just to cover my very most basic living expenses and my supplies, if I quit my day job.  I knew how long it took me to make a baby quilt.  I did the math and determined that even if I had the demand for all those baby quilts, I'd have to quilt 12-15 hours a day to make enough baby quilts.

There is absolutely nothing I like to do so much that I want to do it 12 hours a day, every day of the week.  Nothing.

This book both made me want a farm of my own, and reminded me of all the ways that having a week-end farm 4 hours away is tough.  It would be tougher for me:  my family income is considerably smaller, for starters.  I can't be sure that I would find the competent caretaker that they did.

Then I turned my attention to Blood, Bones, and Butter.  I loved parts of it:  the growing up in the 1970's, the kindnesses shown to her by grown ups in Europe contrasted with the grimness of the youth hostels, the starting of her own restaurant.  The end left me with more questions than answers.  Was her marriage saved? 

I've never had any illusions about cooking for a living.  I like to cook for myself and the people I love.  But I see being a chef as a grueling job.  All those hours on one's feet!

I do love reading about cooking, about farming, about restoring houses.  I do love reading books, like Bradbury's, that make me appreciate my current life.  I do worry that at some point I'll look back at my current life with wistful sighs.  I hope that my future life contains even more delights than my current life.  But my summer of apocalyptic reading cautions other outcomes could come crashing down on our heads.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Week of Reminders of Fragility

In many ways, this has been a tough week, with lots of reminders of how fragile life can be.  The mother of a colleague at work fell and had to have several surgeries--that same colleague had to have an emergency root canal yesterday.

There have been the deaths.  I've already written a post about Marvin Hamlisch.  Yesterday, I heard of the death of David Rakoff, whose voice is familiar to me from various NPR shows.  Now I've added his books to my list of books to read.

If you're wondering why we should care about the death of Rakoff, listen to this show that Fresh Air offered yesterday.  Or go to this wonderful piece by Linda Holmes and make sure to click on the second embedded video.  By the end, I was weeping.

Was I weeping because David Rakoff was my age?  Yes.  Was I weeping because I've already had a battering week?  Yes.  But more, I was weeping because one more great mind has been lost, and we are left here amidst the ugliness of the world, stranded with tales of ugliness from the campaign scene.  I am weary.

It's been yet another week of hearing of presses closing; Jeannine Hall Gailey sums up those dreadful developments neatly in this post.  Will I ever have a book with a spine?  I remind myself that just a few weeks ago, I created a chapbook that made me really happy.  One of my writing projects for fall is to expand that chapbook into a full-length manuscript.  Will it ever be published?  I remind myself that it's not up to me.  All I can do is to do the best work I can.

I need those same reminders at my day job as college administrator.  It's been the kind of week where students come to me to help them with troubles they're having with their classes and their teachers, as if I have some magic spell I can utter over them or some talisman.  Or maybe they want me to punish their teachers, as if they're diners complaining to the manager about a bad waitress.  I just offer them the same advice I offer myself:  "Try again.  Approach the rest of your time in this class with a more open heart.  Ask your teacher what you can do to salvage this class.  It's fixable."

It's been a week with rumors of bad news soon to come at work; rumors of tough budgets and all those implications swirl and thicken in the distance.  The atmosphere sours.

Again, all I can do is show up and see what each day brings.  Each day, I think about alternate careers, like going to seminary to become a hospice chaplain.

And the universe chuckles fondly and says, "Really, dear, you can be a hospice chaplain right where you are.  No need to change careers."

Friday, August 10, 2012

From the Sea to the High Mountains

A week ago, we'd have already been on the road; we had to get from Jacksonville, Florida to the high mountains of North Carolina by 2:00 because my spouse had a meeting at Lutherock, a Lutheran camp.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but I'm always ready for new landscapes.  I know that I'm lucky to live 3 miles from a beautiful beach, but my heart yearns for rural landscapes and mountain vistas.

Let me hasten to say that if I had a rural homestead, my heart would yearn for the beach.

Well, our trip covered many a landscape.  Lutherock is near Grandfather Mountain, and it's not in a very populated spot.  It reminds me of the way Lutheridge used to be.  When I was young, we'd go to the church camp Lutheridge, which is near Asheville.  These days, there's a SuperWalMart and a Target right outside the gates.  When I was young, if I forgot to pack something for camp, I did without it for the week at camp.  The nearest grocery store was miles and miles away, and it wasn't a national chain.  Did we have national grocery store chains in the 1970's?  Probably.  But they didn't come to teeny, tiny Southern towns.

We'd never driven from Jacksonville, Florida to Newland, North Carolina before, so we weren't exactly sure how long it would take.  And since my spouse had a meeting that started at 2, we really didn't have much time to stop.  We drove back on Sunday morning.  So, though we drove by many an interesting place, we didn't have time to stop.

I had hoped we might find a roadside stand with perfect peaches and beautiful tomatoes.  I wanted to fill the trunk with vegetables grown in Southern soil preferably picked just that morning.  But maybe it's for the best that we didn't.  If I really wanted to bring back vegetables, I'd have put a cooler in the trunk.  I didn't.

So we drove and drove, and I drank in the sights.  I saw a sign at a church that said, "Wanted:  Dedicated Piano Player for Church."  We talked about the non-dedicated piano players that the church must have seen.  We wondered if church dedication is different from musical dedication of other sorts.

From a distance, I saw a sign  in front of a shop that said "Wicked Needle."  We were high in the mountains.  I expected a quilt shop, and I was curious about what kind of quilt shop would have that name.  Imagine my surpise when it turned out to be a tattoo parlor.

That was my favorite sign, but a close second said, "Snowflake Farm."  And then below it:  "For Sale."  I guess it's a tough market out there for snowflakes, and with global warming, it's not going to get any easier to raise them.

I saw pumpkins on a gazebo--fall is coming!

Sure, you might say that those pumpkins are left over from last year, but I have additional proof:  a changing leaf here and there:

(for more photos, see this post on my theology blog)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Technology and the Peace of Unplugging

On this day in 1945, just after 11:00 a.m., the U.S. dropped its second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.  President Truman said, "I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb... It is an awful responsibility which has come to us... We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes."

I am struck by Truman's intriguing reference to God here.  My brain spins at the idea of God using nuclear weapons in some redemptive way.  But since this isn't my theology blog, let me not go down the theological road.

It's been an interesting week in terms of technology, both as a nation and in my own life.  I'm struck by the juxtaposition of the anniversary of the bombings with the landing of Curiosity on Mars.  I'm watching the Olympics, and I'm watching pictures beamed from even further away, from a different planet.  I'm writing on a computer that has more power than the computers that first guided the space program .  I think I'm right about this.  I do know for sure that my computer is smaller and faster than those early computers--and so much cheaper!

I'm not the only one who's thinking about these juxtapositions.  I love this blog post over at the Lofty Ambitions blog which talks about plutonium at its best and worst:  "This week, we remember the destruction that nuclear weapons can unleash in a single instant. May we also look to the skies this week and know that Curiosity, powered by its nuclear battery, is readying itself to explore the geochemistry of another world. May we glimpse, in Bill Nye’s words last night, 'Humans at their very best.'”

Of course, there are ways that technology makes our lives more difficult.  I've spent part of this week, as I do every week, sorting through e-mails, most of which aren't important at all--but they all require me to read them and decide whether or not to keep them and which file stores them. 

I get batches of resumes for a job that doesn't exist in my department, and I can do nothing to get this job posting taken down from the dozens of places it exists.  Periodically, I get all the resumes in one batch--via e-mail.  Last night, I scanned through 167 pages of various resumes, most of them from people who were not remotely qualified to teach in my department so that I could tell HR whose resumes we would be keeping, in case a job opens up, and who was not qualified.  Will HR send two different letters?  I do not know.  When applicants get a letter, will they even remember applying?  Some of the materials sent to me are dated back in April and May, but I just got these resumes in early August.


And those technology issues are simply annoying, not life threatening by any means.  My colleague's mother had a fall last week, and she's entered the medical maze.  Will she emerge whole and restored?  Unlikely.

We spent the week-end at a Lutheran camp high in the mountains of North Carolina.  We had no T.V., and for part of the week-end, no Internet access.  On our last night there, after most people had left, my spouse and I sat on the porch and watched the sky darken and the stars get brighter.  I felt a lack of anxiety, a peacefulness that I experience far less when I'm in my fully wired world.

I don't want to go back to 1945 or 1962 or 1994.  I'm happy for the developments that technology has brought us, from the huge amounts of music/data that we can carry on increasingly small devices to the medical technology that does so much to help us avoid the horrors of the past to the ways that I stay connected with people to the ability to explore a distant planet.

No, once again, I find myself longing for balance, wishing that I didn't have to drive such a distance to experience the peace that comes from unplugging.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

All the Ways We Were

If we had a conversation about musical influences, I'd probably talk about Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and The Police/Sting.  If we had enough time, I'd talk about how the bands Nirvana and Garbage made my mind expand as I thought about what could be accomplished sonically--and they had some intriguing lyrics too.  I'd talk about Woody Guthrie, if we had a long conversation.  I'd talk about music that moved us to social justice.

I wouldn't have mentioned Marvin Hamlisch, who died earlier this week.  But as I've read about his work, I'm realizing how much of his music swirled in the background of my life, especially in the 1970's.  Perhaps he's most famous for "The Way We Were."  But there's also "Nobody Does It Better" and "Looking through the Eyes of Love" (from the movie Ice Castles, which I'll admit to weeping over as a young teenager).  If you want a refresher, go to this post that appeared courtesy of The Washington Post.

But honestly, Hamlisch meant the most to me as one of the creators of A Chorus Line.  I've written before about what that play meant to me (here, here, and here).  My mom got the soundtrack for Christmas of 1977, and my sister and I memorized it.  I can still sing any of the songs.  In fact, I've memorized the soundtrack of many a Broadway musical, and many of the more recent ones bear his influence, some his music.

A Chorus Line taught me many things about narrative.  I think that was one of the first Broadway musicals  with that kind of narrative structure, which doesn't tell a story so much as present intriguing character studies--and those characters tell a larger story about society.  In the case of A Chorus Line, it's a larger story about theatre culture as well as about New York City and small town U.S. culture.  It's interesting to see all these characters, only tangentially linked, who present stories and marvel at the similarities and differences of their lives.  There was concern that theatre audiences wouldn't be able to follow, but Hamlisch always maintained that theatre goers would be smarter than the play's creators thought they might be.

Some future graduate student may write a dissertation that traces my fondness for linked short stories back to A Chorus Line.  I suspect A Chorus Line influences much of my work.  We'll leave that subject for Future Graduate Student to explore.

Some have criticized Hamlisch for being too kitschy, too accessible.  Even Barbra Streisand resisted recording "The Way We Were" because she thought it was too simple.  Hamlisch persisted, she recorded it, and it's become her signature song (see this story in The New York Times for more). 

Hamlisch asserted over and over again that it takes real talent to write a simple song.  His career shows that simplicity can work.  It's an interesting lesson for all of us artists to ponder.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When Pacifists Marry

Yesterday, early in the morning, we hugged our college friend goodbye.  One of the benefits of travelling is getting to see old friends along the way. Yesterday, because it was August 6, my spouse said, "And say a little prayer at about 8:15."

Not everyone would understand the reference, but I knew that he was talking about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  As we drove down the road, I thought about the ways we've honored the anniversary in the past.  Sometimes we've read parts of John Hersey's Hiroshima together.  Some years we've gone to peace demonstrations.  Some years the anniversary slips by almost unnoticed.

My spouse used to sink into a deep depression as August 6 approached and August 9 went by.  In fact, when we planned our marriage and talked about dates, he suggested a time between August 6 and August 9 as a way to alleviate his annual depression.

My mother had been used to our non-mainstream values, so when I suggested those dates, she didn't offer much in the way of protest.  She simply said, "But those dates aren't on a week-end.  It will be hard for people to come."

Happily, my spouse decided that the risk of being deeply depressed on his wedding day was too big a risk if we went with his plan, and so we chose August 13.  In hindsight, that date might not have been the best either, as it is also the birthday of my young nephew (son of my spouse's brother).  Now I might make a different choice, but at the time, we needed to get the wedding completed before grad school started again.

Why did we need to do that?  I'm no longer sure.  We could have waited until a later date, or perhaps gotten married earlier.  I suspect that as we compared everyone's calendars, the date of August 13 seemed to work the best for everyone.  My nephew was turning 2 that year, so I likely reasoned that it was less of a conflict than if the child had been 10.

The larger question:  why did I feel compelled to get married at all?  I remember feeling like I either needed to marry my college boyfriend or we needed to split up.  But why did I feel that way?  Why did I bow to a societal pressure that I said I didn't really feel?  We had no pressure from our parents.  We would get no special tax or insurance benefits.  We had no plans to start a family, so there was no biological clock to consider.

Even at the time, I wondered at my bowing to marriage.  I thought about my gay friends who couldn't marry.  I thought about refusing to marry until everyone had the right to marry.

As I think back to my student days, I'm intrigued by the issues which moved me to fierceness, and the ones that clobbered me.  The woman who helped hang paper cranes in protest of nuclear proliferation, who protested against apartheid in front of the South African embassy, the woman who went to abortion rights rallies--that woman decided to marry?  I was that tiresome student who was always declaring that marriage was a trap, yet I entered that trap willingly.

As with so much, my youthful self was both correct and terribly wrongheaded.  Maybe I'll write more about that later.

Today I want to remember that time period between May and August of 1988.  At the time we announced our engagement, the Soviet Union began leaving Afghanistan.  Through the summer, it seemed that the Iran-Iraq war was coming to an end, and indeed, a truce was signed shortly after our wedding.  There were protests here and there behind the Iron Curtain, and people lived to tell about it.

The irrational, Romantic part of me thought, hey, we should have gotten married earlier--it's as if we've created a warp in the war-peace continuum, and peace is gaining a foothold.  I had an older friend in college who, during a discussion of marriage in a Sociology class, had posited that people in union have a chance of doing more good in the world than individuals working alone.  In my loopier moments, I wondered if this was what he'd meant:  two peaceniks marry and bring peace to the Middle East!

My mother always contrasts the wedding ceremony experiences of me and my sister.  With my sister, my parents had to be very clear about what they would be affording.  My mom once said to me, "With you, I felt lucky that you didn't insist on being married in a field."

I was that intense adolescent that worried about the morality of spending money on a wedding dress when so many people couldn't afford clothes.  So, we bought a dress on sale for $100, which still caused me concern, but my mom and I agreed to compromise.

I was that intense student who worried about spending gobs of money on a reception when so many people had no food.  So we made the reception more like a meal, with sandwiches so that our relatives could head for their distant homes with full tummies.

We spent a brief honeymoon in Asheville, North Carolina before returning to plunge back into graduate studies.  Our first meal together, we splurged on dessert:  we shared a slice of cheesecake with blueberries, and we each got our own cup of coffee.

Ah, those days when it seemed a splurge to get my own cup of coffee that I didn't have to share with anyone:  those times seem both very close and very long ago.  I'm still wrestling with the best way to live a life in sync with my values.  I don't expect to ever call that battle won.

But my Romantic side still believes that when people join their lives together, peace and good have a better chance at prevailing.