Thursday, July 19, 2018

Farewell to the Dining Room Table and Chairs

On the porch, my grandmother's dining room table and chairs sit, waiting for pick up from Out of the Closet, a thrift store that raises money to support gay and lesbian causes.  My spouse chose that destination.  If we were characters in a novel, this detail would surely presage a plot point, depending on the kind of novel we were in.  But I'm just hoping that they actually take it.

In 2003, my grandmother had to leave her house.  It's amazing that she survived the incident that sent her to the continuing care facility:  during the heat of the summer day, she went to take clothes off the line and had a heart attack.  She lay there under the unmerciful sun until neighbors came to look for her in the evening after she didn't answer the "Are you O.K.?" phone calls that she and her friend made to each other in the morning and in the evening.

She had to leave her house, which meant that much of her furniture couldn't come with her.  Although I was only interested in a few pieces, it cost the same to ship a little or to ship a lot, and so I took much of what she wasn't taking with her.

The dining room table expands to seat 3 on either side, and only when it's expanded do the chairs push all the way in--so either way, it takes up more room than I realized.  It's the kind of design that has all sorts of places that catch dust, plus it's hard to dust.  The top is easily scarred and marked.  I have no idea how my grandmother kept it in such good condition--probably because she didn't use it often.  Her dining room was so cramped that it was hard to use it at all.

I hope someone else finds it in the thrift store and loves it, but it's not the kind of thing that fits modern tastes.  I am willing to let it go, but I hate the thought of it going to the dump.

We are in the sorting phase of the great flooring project.  We're realizing how many things we've kept.  My spouse has at least one box of papers that his mother kept--papers that relate to her grandfather, papers that aren't going to be interesting to other relatives, since they didn't know the man.  It seems a shame to toss them--and yet, that's what will happen eventually.

I always knew this sobering reality, but here I am, chastened again by how little it all amounts to, in the end.  A box of papers about a life--including a book of funeral guests, all unknown to us.  It might matter to a historian some day, but it likely wouldn't.  Our relatives were just ordinary folks--important to their immediate circles, but not changing the course of history, except in the ways that ordinary folks leading regular lives change the course of history.

I want to be more ruthless in sorting through my own papers, but it's likely too early to be that ruthless.  I have no children who will be interested in the inner workings of my life or the outer trappings, but I still hope to have decades on this earth.  Still, it's time to think about what I need for those decades:  financial papers yes, dining room table no.



So good-bye, dining room table.  May you find a home where people continue to gather around you to enjoy delicious food and fellowship.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Building Community through Food

Today is National Hot Dog Day; at my school, we'll be celebrating by having hot dogs staying warm in crock pots available for students all day.  We'll also have salad for those who don't want hot dogs.

I went to Gordon Food Services, a much smaller version of Costco or BJs or Sam's.  It's closer to my campus and doesn't require a yearly membership fee.  People commented on the quantity of hot dogs that I was buying, but I worried that I wasn't buying enough.  I can always come back, if people eat more hot dogs than I'm anticipating.

As I loaded the groceries in the car, the man beside me told me about his dogs and how well they eat and how he drives in this junker of a car so that his dogs can eat well.  He also told me about the documentary that turned him against hot dogs.

Have I been having more strange encounters lately or am I just more aware of them?

Yesterday before I went to get the hot dogs, we had a pot luck for the faculty and staff who work at the school.  It was delicious and bountiful, the way a pot luck should be.

In the background, my brain returns again and again to the closing of the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale.  I remember a National Hot Dog day of a past year when I was surprised at how popular the hot dogs were; the administrator team handed them out, and I was surprised by the gratitude of the students.

It was a time of increasing desperation:  how can we improve morale?  There was much scoffing at the idea of hot dogs as a cure, but the years where we had more of those kinds of activities were years that students and faculty alike seemed happier to be there.  It couldn't erase the pain of the periodic staff reductions, but it was better than the years when we couldn't find money for events like a hot dog day.

I feel fortunate to be at a school that has the money for these kinds of events.  I know how important they are for building a school that is more than a school.  I'm working to build a supportive community:  food events go much further towards that goal than I originally thought.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Strange Streets and Surreal Times

Yesterday was a bit surreal:

--We have a U.S. president who seems more willing to trust Russia than to trust our allies of 50 + years.  Hearing the news of the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki was just bizarre.  I found myself thinking of a classic episode of The Simpsons that has Homer in Cuba saying, "I think we can trust the president of Cuba" as all of their valuables are taken by the government.

--As I went to pick up one of our college friends who was in town, I heard news of an exchange student who was a secret agent.  It's enough to make me wonder what year it is.  But it's clearly a year that has never existed, if we have double agents making connection with the NRA as our U.S. president has a meeting with the Russian president without anyone else present.

--I'm glad that I'm not a writer of thrillers.  How does one compete?

--My college friend had said he wanted to go to an Armenian restaurant, so I had researched a possibility.  In the car, he said, "Are there any restaurants from Hungary?  I could be wanting some Hungarian goulash."  I suggested Old Heidelberg, a German restaurant that has several kinds of goulash.  I didn't think we'd actually end up there, but we did.

--My friend loves to order appetizers for the table, but the Germans don't really have the kinds of appetizers he likes to order:  no jalapeno poppers, no crab-filled puffy things.

--I had envisioned a lovely night of half price appetizers in downtown Hollywood--but I was also expecting to end up someplace totally different--that's what happens often when we're with this particular friend.  But to end up at a German restaurant?  I wouldn't have thought that would happen.

--We had a very leisurely meal, and so, it was strange to drive home through the dark streets.  At a stop sign, there were several groups of unruly people.  At a stop light, a dark-skinned man staggered into the stopped traffic and said, "I want all of these cars."  I'm not sure how we caught his eye, but he lurched to us, pounded (lightly) his fist on our car hood, and said, "God bless you."  My spouse rolled down his window and said, "Brother, God bless you too."  The light changed, and we all drove away.

--It's the kind of scene that could have ended very differently.  I'm glad that it ended with blessing.  My spouse heard the man say, "Some folks don't see it (or Him?)" as if to say, "You and me, we see it."  I heard him say, "Some days, I just don't see it"--as in, some days I feel God's presence, and some days I don't.  Regardless, I felt an odd moment of connection with a man who most of us would have perceived as threatening.

--I wanted to go home, cook a meal or cookies, and bring it back--but I know how many ways that could have gone wrong.  Instead I said a prayer for us all, out there on strange streets, looking for connections where they may or may not be wise, including our president.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Week-end Wrap Up

In so many ways, my week-end was not what I expected.  Let me capture my memories of the week-end, while they are fresh:

--My spouse and his brother had Saturday plans to either go to a gun range or to ride motorcycles.  But my spouse had a splitting headache, so they changed plans abruptly.  We walked to the beach to have a birthday lunch at the organic brewery.  It was delightful, although a very hot walk.

--My spouse and I spent a lot of time in the pool in the evening Saturday--was my deeper sleep a product of this swimming time?

--I did get all my grading done, although not all on Saturday, like I expected.

--I also thought I might get lots of packing done on Saturday, while my spouse was out.  As with my grading, I did get packing done, but not on Saturday.

--You may ask why I'm packing.  We expect the great flooring project to begin in a few weeks, so we need to get as much off the floors as possible.  If I don't think about the enormity of it all, if I just focus on the one box that needs to be packed, I can keep going.

--I have started watering the plants in the evening.  Once I saw this as yet another caretaking failure.  I've always heard that one should water the plants in the morning and that watering in the evening leaves the plants exposed to rot and pests.  But the plants can't be any worse off than they are now--and they seem to respond well to evening watering, perhaps because our overnight temps aren't very low.  Maybe my green hydrangea blooms will finally turn a color.

--I think it's interesting that I see my plant caretaking as a failure because my petunias have turned spindly and my hydrangeas aren't turning blue or purple.  Petunias are one season plants, and I've kept them alive since I bought them in February.  I've never kept hydrangeas alive as long as I've kept these two plants alive.  I should be bragging, not feeling bad.

And now, on to a new week.  Let me keep watering my plants at night.  Let me keep tackling the great flooring project, box by box.  Let me stay calm and centered, no matter what comes my way.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Bastille Day Bits

Today we have another chance to celebrate independence, liberty, and equality: Happy Bastille Day to us all!  Bastille Day is the French Fourth of July, and you could make a strong case that both revolutions should be celebrated in tandem. The French began their revolution in the decade after the American colonies broke away, and for the next century, maybe 2, abusive leaders worried about the example set by these revolutions.

I remember very few dates without having to look them up to be sure, but I do know that the storming of the Bastille happened in 1789--and by reversing those last 2 numbers, I can remember that Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. I can make the case that both events forever shaped the future.

Let me collect some Bastille Day thoughts:

--I took a sunrise walk to the beach.  If you hear about a crazy lady at the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk wishing everyone a Happy Bastille Day, that was me!

--Longtime readers of this blog know that Bastille Day is also my birthday--and that I was born on a U.S. Air Force Base in France.

--I think of myself as someone who doesn't care about my birthday.  I have never cancelled class so that I could celebrate all day, for example.   I don't plan trips.  But I often feel a bit melancholy if we do absolutely nothing, even if I've requested that we do nothing.

--So if it's Bastille Day, it means I need to think about whether or not we're going to do anything special for my birthday.  Some of my favorite past birthdays:  going to an art museum, going to a French restaurant, having a group of VBS kids sing happy birthday, a spin class done to the Tour de France.  Clearly some of these are more doable than others.

--I can only sing a bit of the French national anthem.  This past week, I came across this version played on the ukulele.  It's quite lovely on the ukulele.

--If we're going to celebrate with music, let's bring out the music of Woody Guthrie, who was born on this day in 1912.  Woody Guthrie came of age in the Great Depression, which means he didn't have basic advantages like a stable home or an education. He didn't always have food.  Yet he was able to persevere. He didn't have musical training, yet he was able to learn what he needed to know. He couldn't write music to go with his lyrics, so he used the music that was out there and available. Perhaps that's why his songs feel so immediately familiar.

--Maybe you're like my students who think they don't know any songs by Woody Guthrie.  But most of us do.  Let us pause and sing "This Land Is Your Land"--much more singable than either the French or the U.S. national anthems.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Barren Brain

Many weeks, I have more blog posts than I have days to write them.  The ideas bloom on the hydrangea bush of my brain.




Some weeks, the calm surface of the river of my brain hides many currents swirling beneath.



These past few days, my brain has felt more like a field of rocks, all similar, nothing beckoning me to linger long.



I look into the monotones of my thought, just in case some life would appear.



I stack the stones into a form that says, "We were here."  I want to see what my brain does with that cairn.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Creative Happinesses

Yesterday a student came to my office to ask, "Do you have any art supplies?"  That made me inordinately happy.  Of course I have art supplies!  She only wanted scissors.  But I was happy to be seen as a source of creative ingredients.

This week, I have had many small moments of happiness like that one.  I wrote this Facebook post on Tuesday:  "What I like best about this Supreme Court nominee: hearing an NPR newscaster say, 'And he's really young--he's only 53 years old.' I also like that he has had a long career in the law, and while I don't always agree with his opinions, at least he wasn't appointed to a federal bench 12 weeks ago or plucked from some stupid TV show and asked to serve a lifetime appointment."

I was so relieved that Trump didn't choose some 28 year old hot shot.  Part of that relief comes from the fact that a 28 year old will sit on the bench a long time.  But I was also relieved because the choice seems sensible.

And as someone who hopes that she still has time to make her mark on the world, I was also relieved.  Slow, steady progress can pay off.

As I have been watching my collection of linked short stories coming together, I've felt energized enough to send out some of those stories to the few journals that are reading during the summer.  I did notice that Glimmer Train Stories will be coming to a close in the not-too-distant future.  That brought me a tinge of sadness.  I remember when the journal began, and I've submitted off and on.  It's a beautiful journal, and it's had a good run of almost 30 years (gasp!)--the editors are simply ready to turn their attention elsewhere.

Yesterday I did a bit of poetry revising.  I've been thinking about the snake bite kit as a symbol.  I keep mine on my nightstand, in a small bowl, along with my very dull Girl Scout knife.  As I've been wrestling with the poem, I'm realizing how often I put lots of story into many poems.   That's not a surprise, but even when I sit down to create a pared down revision, the story still wants to creep in.

I am happy to write poems and stories, still, after all these years.  I am happy to have an office that is stocked with craft supplies, tea, and all sorts of academic resources.  I am happy that I can still take a walk to the beach--which I need to do now, before the day goes into full swing.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Progress Report: Linked Short Story Collection

Yesterday, I made a giant leap with my linked short story collection.  I had been getting strong glimmers of how to arrange the book and yesterday, I decided to try it.  Story by story, I built the book.  While some of the stories will still need some revision to fit together, I now know the order.  And even better, I know that they can fit together.

I had worried that all of my stories had administrators dealing with student complaints--and I worried that maybe it was the same complaint.  I've been writing these stories for years, so it wouldn't have surprised me to find out that I used the same material from my real life.  Happily, I did not.

I placed the stories with administrators and complaining students far enough away from each other that I hope that no reader will toss the book across the room saying, "Ugh.  I just can't take it anymore."  I hope that discerning readers and literary critics will see a larger purpose to the repetition.  I am making a point that much of the life of an administrator revolves around complaints, many of them similar, many of them groundless.

Right now, the collection is 49,717 words, 184 pages.  I have a story I'm still working on that I'll include, and there's still revision that will add words.  But I've laid to rest my worries about the collection being too short.

Let me also record my process of the past 9 months, in case I find it important later.  For years, I wrote the stories knowing that I was working towards a collection, knowing what connected the stories (characters all working at the same for-profit art school), but that didn't help me figure out how to arrange the stories.  In the fall, I worked on a story that had the school closing, so that helped me with the narrative arc.

Once I had the arc, there were clearly some stories that belonged earlier, stories that gave no sense that the school was floundering, and stories that belonged near the end, stories that gave foreshadowing of the crises to come, stories that showed the crisis in action.  To be more specific, one story revolves around a corporate person who comes to the campus to assess, and one story revolves around a contentious campus meeting.  There's also a story that shows a RIF (Reduction in Force) happening.

My goal for the coming year is to send out these stories to see if I can find a home for them.  They do all stand on their own.  But I think they are stronger together.  So I'll also spend the coming year polishing the collection.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Green Vistas on Vacation

Orlando has one of the biggest convention centers I've ever seen.  It's actually multiple convention centers connected by skyways between buildings that keep pedestrians covered and above the traffic.  On Friday afternoon, as we walked back to the car, we stopped to admire the natural vista off to one side.  I could hear the traffic that's never far away in a Florida city.  But I also saw a grove of tall pines and maples in their full, green glory.

I thought of a long ago argument about Orlando and whether it's a fake city or not.  Actually, we were arguing about whether or not theme parks are fake.  I said that I wasn't paying the kinds of admission prices to go in to have a totally manufactured experience:  "It's all fake," I said.  My friend argued more vociferously than I had ever heard her argue before.  Clearly, I had struck a nerve.  I knew that one of her dreams was to work for Disney, but I didn't realize how personally she took a criticism of the industry.

I still don't want to pay the kinds of prices that one pays for admission at those parks--but more than that, I don't want to stand in those long lines at the park or pay even more money for a fast pass.  But I thought about that argument about what's fake and what's not as I walked around the resort this past week-end. 

I loved seeing all the lush vegetation, even though I know it's a manufactured landscape--but really, aren't many landscapes these days managed and manufactured?  I was impressed with the wide variety and health of the plants.

I thought of recent arguments that we need church camps to keep an appreciation of wild places alive in us.  But many church camps are less and less wild these days--at least the ones on the east coast.  Many camps have a slogan that's a variation of "A Place Apart," but many of them are easily accessible by highway.  It's not necessarily a problem--just a feature of modern life.  As a child, when I went to Lutheridge, one of my favorite church camps, if I forgot something, I'd have to do without it.  Now there's a huge WalMart right outside the camp gates.

I know that people pay a pretty penny to enjoy resorts, just like they do at theme parks--the social justice question of whether or not it's a good use of money is one that I'll save for a different post. 

I know that resorts pay to have that lush vegetation not to preserve it or to give humans a longed-for green space, but for different reasons.  I know that most of the people at the resort when I was there were not out appreciating the nature, but out appreciating the theme parks.

Long ago, I taught a Scriptwriting for Games class.  We had interesting discussions about what constitutes real life--if a person spends more time online than out interacting with real humans, what is real life?  Back then, we didn't have the types of social media that we have now.  Now the question seems ever more relevant.

What is real, and what is manufactured, and if it's manufactured, is it less real?  In some ways, these questions have always been ones that Philosophy handles better than any other realm of the humanities.  In some ways, it doesn't matter.  But in these days of paving over every vacant space and erecting huge buildings that may or may not improve our lives, they seem ever more relevant.

I could--and often do--spend lots of time wrestling with these questions.  But for my 4 days away, I decided to focus on appreciating the green spaces that aren't often part of my vista. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Report on a Mini Vacation

I try to be careful when I write about our trips, although I suspect we're in more danger from people on the ground who notice our quiet house than from anyone on social media who might read about our trips.

On Thursday, we drove up to Orlando for the huge Barbershop competition.  My dad's group was competing, as they often do each year--but usually, it's not easy for me to get to the competition site to see the competition.  Orlando, though, is an easy drive.

Although we knew it would be a short time together, we knew it would be worth it.  My sister and my nephew spent the whole week, but my spouse and I had commitments that kept us in town until Thursday.  My dad's competition was Friday, so late Thursday afternoon, we zipped up there.

My parents have some Marriot time share points, so we all stayed at the Cypress Harbor resort--lovely 2 bedroom condos, and we had 2 of them while we were there, so it was downright luxurious.  I get up much earlier than the rest of my family, and it was wonderful to have a beautiful space where I could be up and not disturb everyone else.  On Friday, we spent a big chunk of the day at the competition, but we were close enough that we could come back to the condo for meals.  On Saturday, we spent much of the day by the pool.

We were lucky both ways, in that we had no traffic issues.  The weather was mostly beautiful.  But when the heat brought us storms, we had a covered porch that overlooked a small lake where we sat enjoying the view and the sound of the rain. 

It was wonderful to be with my family, even though it was short.  We left wishing we had more time, which is a great way to end a vacation.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Beauty of Barbershop and All Its Inspirations

When I've told people that I would be spending my vacation day on Friday watching my dad in a Barbershop competition, most people said, "Your dad cuts hair?"

No--my dad sings in a barbershop group, as long-time readers of this blog know.  In fact, he's part of an award winning group, The Alexandria Harmonizers.  He's traveled the world with them:  the group sang at the Great Wall of China and the group was invited to France celebrate one of the big anniversaries of D-Day.

They did not win yesterday, but it was a tough field in which to compete.  We didn't see every group, but we saw a lot of them.  I am always impressed with the groups that keep this tradition alive.  There were more groups of young singers than I thought there would be--and yet, why was I surprised?  Roots music is often appealing.  In an age that sees young people creating artisanal cheese businesses and urban farms and whiskey distilleries in a spare closet, why wouldn't there be a return to Barbershop?

I am also astonished at the types of music that can be made into a Barbershop arrangement.  My favorite song, not sung by my dad's group, alas, was the arrangement of Paul Simon's "American Tune."  I would not have thought it was possible to transform that song in such a way.  I know the lyrics, of course.  They seem particularly appropriate:  "We come on the ship they call Mayflower.  We come on the ship that sailed the moon.  We come in the age's most uncertain hour, and we sing an American tune."  Throughout, the lyrics return to "It's alright, it's alright, it's alright," and at the end remind us that we can be forever blessed.  Beautiful!  I needed that message during my adolescent years when I first listened to the lyrics enough to memorize them, and I need them at this point in the life of the nation.

Before the results of the competition were announced, we enjoyed a small concert from last year's winner.  They did a medley of the work of Stephen Schwarz.  I had no idea that the music of Godspell and Wicked could be transformed into Barbershop arrangements--but they can.

As the day went on, my brain wasn't always focused on the competition.  I spent part of the last two days rereading the short stories that I hope will make up a volume of linked stories, with the link being the for-profit art school in South Florida where all the characters work.  I have one short story that I'd really like to include, but it's set in South Carolina, with a major part of it revolving around Mepkin Abbey.  I thought about creating a fictional abbey in South Florida.  I thought about making the plot work out in other ways.

At some point in the afternoon, the answer came to me:  the character left South Florida to take a department chair position in South Carolina, but she wonders what life would have been like had she stayed.  The title of the story works for the whole volume:  Book of the Dead.  I also thought about a short story that I wrote years ago that would fit into the collection of linked stories.

On our way back to our cars last night, my family started singing "Doe, a deer."  Three generations walked down the sidewalk singing that song from The Sound of Music at the top of our lungs.  It will be my favorite memory when I think of this competition.

Some people walked by us and looked at us like we were deranged people who had escaped from an institution.  Others smiled.  The lucky ones sang along as they walked along.

I had a vision of the whole city, united in song, healing the rifts and bridging differences in a way that only music can.  But that didn't happen, at least not last night.  At the end of the day, we poured the wine and toasted to better luck next year, a great way to end a wonderful day.

Friday, July 6, 2018

July 4: A Look Back

Many of us, including me, have complained about the 4th of July falling on a Wednesday.  But this week, I realized one of the advantages:  because I had to work the day after July 4th, I kept our obligations realistic.

Most years when we're at home, I have bold plans:  we'll go somewhere to see a fireworks show, we'll have a feast, we'll do something with friends that will result in us getting home late.  When I know I have the next day off, I often waste huge chunks of the time off that I have (witness almost every Saturday).

This year, I knew that I had one day only.  I planned it so that we stayed home.  Late in the day, I made this Facebook post:

"On this day when we celebrate breaking free of tyranny, I can't help but notice how much time I've spent on the tyranny of chores: yardwork, washing dishes, laundry, changing sheets, vacuuming. Still, it's good to have time to do these chores, and I am aware that there are lots of people across the planet who would love to have a house and the freedom to live in it as they chose and they would gladly submit to this tyranny."

Yes, I got a lot of chores done.  But there was also time for reading by the pool while eating frozen coconut pops.  I did some writing throughout the day.  We watched a bit of T.V.  Overall, it was a relaxing day.

I am trying to maintain the weight loss that has come with my 10 day shred that I took on to bounce me off a plateau, so I kept my eating/drinking splurges very moderate:  a hamburger and a glass of wine for lunch, 2 oz. of brie and a glass of wine for dinner, frozen fruit pops for treats throughout the day.

We ended the day with a July 4th tradition:  my spouse took his violin to the porch to play patriotic and Americana music while our neighbors set of fireworks.  People with PTSD would not have been calm in our neighborhood.

When we heard the booms from the beach, we went to the backyard.  Usually we can't see much of the municipal display, but this year, because of Hurricane Irma, some of the trees that had blocked our view were gone.  We had a pretty good view.

Even though the peaceful night was still punctuated with small explosions, I was able to fall asleep fairly easily.  And I had what rarely comes these days:  a sleep without constant interruptions to move off of sore body parts or to get up to go to the bathroom.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Poetry Prompt: The Morning After the Day Before

If I had my camera with me this morning during my walk along the beach, I'd have taken pictures of the mounds of trash.  Most of the mounds are in bags, which are stacked up beside the trash cans that are along the beach.  Crews have been at work for hours before sunrise; I don't think that the crowds of people at the beach yesterday neatly bagged their trash before they left.

As I walked, I paid attention to the trash that I saw.  It will all be picked up by later today, but for now, random pieces of trash lined the Broadwalk.  I was most struck by the debris that once we would have hauled home:  coolers, umbrellas, a variety of clothes.

In a history class long ago, our teacher reminded us that most of what archaeologists discover comes from digging in the garbage dumps of former societies.  I often wonder what future archaeologists will make of our trash.  Certainly they will comment on the huge amount of plastic.

This morning, I looked at all the trash, both the collective version and the individual pieces, and I thought about the symbolism.  What could we learn if we use this trash as a symbol?

I plan to write a poem on this very topic.  What will you write as the week winds down?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Declarations and Constitutions

It's a strange moment in the life of the nation to consider this July 4th holiday, which celebrates the Declaration of Independence, the nation's birthday.  Strange to think that we chose this day for our national birthday holiday, not the day when the war for independence was won.  It's the day that we made our declaration, which wasn't certain to be respected.  It's the day that we declared our independence, which wasn't certain to be won.

Some of us might have chosen a different day to commemorate our nationhood.  I love the Constitution and might have chosen a day that takes us back to that foundational document. 

I look at the past 18 months, and I see an interesting tension, one that has always been there.  We've seen U.S. leadership that seems determined to take the nation in a very different direction from the past.  We see roughly half the nation approving of that direction, able to spin it in ways that support the nation.  We see the other half worrying about fascism and dictatorships past and present.

Some of us come away determined to resist (the Declaration of Independence group).  Some of us (the Constitution group) have been comforted by the way that the system of checks and balances still seems to work, albeit sometimes in a very rough way. And there's another element that has risen to the surface, a group that we rarely talk about in our national holiday celebrations:  the group that has run roughshod over others, whether they be people who got here before them, children, women, religious minorities, other groups, usually with darker skin, who are weaker and more vulnerable.

Periodically throughout the year, not just on this day, I think back on the people who shaped our national history, even if they didn't know they were creating a nation.  I am keenly aware that our leaders are making choices that take us on a certain path, and the road back may be lost forever.  This can be good, as with the various Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's.  Other choices can lead to bloodshed and lives lost and decades spent recovering.  These choices are sometimes necessary, as with World War II.  But would they have been necessary if different decisions had been made earlier?

I am also a Christian, who has spent much of her life hearing the ancient warnings about being too invested in this world.  I'm not one of those Christians who thinks we're only here as a holding pen or proving ground until we get to go to Heaven.  No.  I believe that God has a very different idea of what makes this world a good place, and that vision doesn't often match what national leaders have in mind.  God wants to create a world where we all have enough and the weakest and most vulnerable are protected--and God invites us all to be co-creators of this vision.

My religious traditions have warnings about the empires of the world.  And yet, I've still been brought up to believe that government, when done well, can help the arc of history bend towards justice.

I am listening to the NPR folks read the Declaration of Independence out loud, as they do every 4th of July.  As always, my eyes tear up--and the tears are somewhat different this year.  In the past, I've disagreed with my government, but I didn't worry that its leaders wanted to cede power to Russia or other totalitarian states.

But these tears are also tears of gratitude.  I know that the signers of the Declaration were far from perfect.  I know that good history can come from bad actors. 

I appreciate the risks that these signers took.  When they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, there was a good chance that they were signing their very lives away. 

For those of us committed to a brighter vision of what our nation can be, especially for those of us with a vision of a nation that protects the most helpless and vulnerable, I offer a prayer on this Independence Day.  Let us continue in our commitment.  Let us pledge our sacred honor.  Let it not come at the cost of our lives, but if it does, let us be brave together to secure a better future for those who come after us.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Requiem for the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale

When I first started blogging, I tried to be very careful not to use names:  not the names of people in my life or the place where I worked.  At the same time, I was trying to create an online presence to serve my writing career, whatever that would turn out to be.

I'm still careful about my blogging topics.  I'm still aware that future employers can easily find anything I've written.  I'm still aware of how what we post online threatens not only our privacy, but the privacy of others--and makes it easier for safety of all sorts to be compromised.

It's not hard for anyone who wants to know to figure out the broad outlines of my life, so let me just say that I once worked for the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale.  I started working there in January of 2002, and I left for a new job in October of 2016.  During that time I saw many changes, and I spent several of my last years at the school wondering how the school would survive bad publicity, high tuition, and declining student numbers.  I knew that the path was unsustainable--it's one of the reasons why I left.

I have spent years predicting that the school would have to close, but on some level, I was still shocked when the official announcement came yesterday.  And it's not just AiFL.  Seventeen Art Institutes across the nation will close, nine Argosy campuses, and 3 South University campuses.  I don't have details yet about timelines or how the students will be guided.

When I started at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, enrollment was at an all-time high, just over 3,000 students.  If you arrived at certain times, there would be no parking--none--and you had to hunt for free street parking or pay at the meters, and that parking was scarce.  We had two four story buildings with classes on every floor, and we had to rent space at places nearby.

I became Associate Chair of the General Education department in 2007, and Chair in 2010.  Numbers had fallen off, but departments still fought over classroom space.  By the time I left, there was no need to fight.  Many classrooms sat empty for much/all of the day.

When I left, the school had one building and the Culinary department across the street.  Tuition was still high and Gainful Employment legislation was about to make it hard to sustain the current trajectory.  I had ideas about how the school might turn around, but no Corporate types were interested in our ideas, and our upper management at school wasn't allowed much freedom at all.

Throughout the years, we did good work--even during my final years, when we had fewer and fewer resources, we did good work.  Don't believe anything you might read that suggests otherwise.  The school has just come through an accreditation visit with very few findings--the school did good work.

I've been working on a collection of linked short stories, and the link is that all the characters work at the same for-profit art school, The Art Institute of South Florida, a school based on AiFL.  During the fall of 2017, I worked on a story, "The Burdens They Carried," which had the school close.  I knew that the school was headed for closing, and I have for years, but I'm still surprised that the company didn't try to save it in other ways:  lowering tuition, moving more classes online, lowering tuition, creating short-term classes and opportunities to bring in more cash, lowering tuition . . .

Here's the ending from the story that I wrote.  My friends who have read the short story tell me that they find the ending surprisingly hopeful:

"In the end, the building stood by itself. The building had thought that it would miss the hustle and bustle of the school, but it was surprised to find that it didn’t miss the drama that comes when students gather in a place. The sadness that had soaked into every fiber of the school slowly dissipated until the building felt so buoyant that it might leave its foundation and float away to sea."



Monday, July 2, 2018

Mid Summer Check

I can scarcely believe that it's already July.  Here we are at the middle of the year.  It's a good time to stop and take stock.

I'm pleased with the progress that we're making on various repair projects, even though it often seems harder than it needs to be.  Let me remember what we have accomplished since the hurricane:  the cottage foundation stabilized, the AC installed in the cottage, a mold inspection done by a non-insurance-adjuster.  We've made progress on the fence and the floors in the big house. There's much left to be done, but we're less often in a swamped-by-despair state.

My reading year is a bit underwhelming.  I'm reading books, of course, but nothing makes me want to stay up all night reading.  A case in point:  Meg Wolitzer's latest book, The Female Persuasion.  It's good, I'm enjoying it, but I'm also putting it down for long stretches of time.

In terms of creativity, here, too, as always, it could be better, although I am getting work done.  I was looking at my blog posts from last July, and I came across one that had me playing with the idea of a new title for my memoir/book of essays:  Micromanaging the Miracles.  I promptly went ahead and did nothing.  In stolen moments this week, let me look at that manuscript and see how much revision I'd need if I changed the title.

Let me resolve to have a manuscript ready to send to Eerdman's by Sept. 15.  Let me also make some decisions about book length poetry manuscripts.

I am pleased that I continue to do sketching/journaling once a week, usually.  I wouldn't mind doing that more--I feel the same way about many of my creative pursuits.

I still struggle with connection.  I feel like I have a supportive web of family, friends and communities.  But here, too, I always have that despairing feeling of never having enough time.  It's a zero sum game:  time spent with one group means there's less time for others.  I try to reframe this issue:  I'm lucky to have so many friends and family members with whom I'd like to spend more time.  Most people don't have this conundrum:  the connection issue brings them a different sort of pain.

The year just zooms on, and this year, as with most, I'm mostly pleased with my trajectory and hopeful that with a bit of tinkering, I'll get on an even more satisfying course.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Week in Review: Community Newspapers and Cottages

It's been a week where I haven't had as much time to write in the morning--that means I haven't had as much time to reflect and ruminate.  It's been the first week of summer term at my college, which also means I haven't had as much time to reflect and ruminate.  I've also been doing a 10 day modified shred (no alcohol, very limited dairy and grains, more exercise), so my head space has been occupied with that attempt.

Let me now capture some additional insights I've had as the week has gone by.

--Like the rest of the nation, I was both shocked (and to be honest, not shocked) over the shooting at the community newspaper in Maryland.  I am aware of how many VERY ANGRY people cross my path; it is not lost on me that any of them might be full of murderous intentions.  What makes people snap and show up at a school or work place with a firearm?

--The fact that it was a community paper also shocked me; I'd have been less shocked if a murderously angry person showed up at The Washington Post with a gun. 

--I have close friends who have worked on community newspapers.  My own college newspaper was closely aligned with The Newberry Observer, the community newspaper for the town where my undergraduate school was located.  I remember one long ago night, where we watched our college newspaper rolling (literally) off the presses at that local paper.  It was so cool to see how the paper was physically produced and to know the journalists who wrote the words that rolled off those presses.

On to other aspects of the week:

--The visit of the camp counselors from Sunday to Friday morning went smoothly.  They were the first people to stay in the cottage since Hurricane Irma.  I was slightly worried that we'd discover something major that needed to be repaired once they were there using the water and the electricity.  But it seems to be fine.

--So on to the next question:  what next?  Most immediately, the cottage will be a holding place for the stuff that needs to come out of the main house so that the floors can be done.  We plan to do the floors in 2 stages, moving half the house to the other half.  But some stuff, like boxes of books, could live in the cottage until we're done.

--It felt somewhat strange, having the counselors here, having people live in the cottage again.  Unlike last year's counselors, they used the pool, which we told them was O.K.  We didn't swim with them, in part because they would only be here a few days, and we wanted to give them time off away from people, since they had intense days leading Vacation Bible School.  And the one day that we did swim in the evening, I felt a bit strange, knowing they might return at any moment.  It's good to remember these feelings, as we consider letting others use the cottage.

--I wanted to take pictures of the cottage after last Saturday's intense work.  As I looked through them, I was struck by the monastic retreat effect that we created:



The bedroom looks cozy, at least in this picture.  A headboard would make it better:



It's not a kitchen that my younger self would love.  My younger self baked in huge batches.  But perhaps it's a kitchen for how we live now (minus the dishwasher and the microwave that many people would want):



--As I've thought about the future of the cottage this week, I've thought of monastic retreats, but as I've said before, I haven't figured out how one would market that.  Yesterday, I overheard a new student talking about her ceramics studio.  I came out of my office to say, "In one of my alternative lives, I'm a potter and a weaver, but who has room for a loom?"

--After that encounter, I went to the stairwell to get my stairs and my steps done for the hour.  As I climbed the steps, I thought, well, I think I have no room, but I have this whole cottage.  What I'd really like to do with the cottage is turn it into studio space.  Carl could do woodturning, and I could do clay or fabric.  And we could still easily clean it up for when out of town guests come.

--Of course, so far, the only out of town guests who have been keenly interested in staying in the cottage were my parents--and that's when my sister and nephew were staying in the guest room of the main house.

--I don't have much free time for a ceramics or fiber studio.  Would I make more time if I had a studio? 

--I have a vision of making interesting garden sculptures and wind chimes--but what to do with them all?  Could I make clay pieces that people might want to buy without a wheel?  I think I could.  But where would I sell them?  And would there be time for that?

These are not questions that must be answered now.  The next project:  floors and a kitchen remodel.  Then we'll see what kind of money is left and how much energy we have.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Mid-Life Arthritis and Mid-Life Goals

The other day, the morning after a day spent working on the yard, I said, "I hurt everywhere from my ribs down--well, except for my knees."  My spouse expressed surprise, but it was true.  I felt pain in every joint except for those at the knee.

I spent my younger years running long distances, and I was almost never a thin runner.  I always joked that I was grinding my bones into dust.  I always thought I'd first experience that pain in my knees.

It's been an interesting year or two, learning to deal with my arthritis and bunions in my feet.  So far, it's constrained my activities somewhat, but I remain committed to doing all that I can to avoid surgery and/or disability.

In my younger running years, I would talk about the importance of listening to the body, but now I have a different experience of that listening in my experience.  In my younger years, when I felt lazy, I would listen for an ache or pain that would give me a reason to have a day off.

Now I show up for exercise realizing that I'm never really sure what I'll experience.  Some days, I have achy feet, but I have an amazing spin class.  Other days, the ache doesn't really flare up until I'm spinning, but I can have a fairly effective work-out just by staying seated and pedaling hard.  I always begin my walk knowing that I'll be limping a bit at the end.

This morning, as I stood up the wrong way and pain shot through my foot and up my leg, I thought, well, I guess I won't be hiking the Appalachian Trail from beginning to end; that question is settled.  No marathons for me.

Of course, if I really wanted to do something, I'd see if there was a way to do it.  As with my earlier days, I'm using my pain as a reason to cross items off the list.  This morning I realized that if I'm crossing them off the list, I didn't really want to do them anyway.

Why is it so hard for me to just admit what I do and do not want to do?  Why do I remain committed to lists that I made when I was very young?  Where else in my life am I showing similar behavior and not realizing it?

I've also been thinking a lot about my writing life.  Are there projects that once were important, but now I should jettison?

Or should I think in a different way?  Are there places where I assume I can't do something, but I should really revisit those goals and apply myself?

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Keeping Our Collective Chins Up

Yesterday as news spread about Justice Kennedy's retirement, I wrote this Facebook post:

"As we feel despair about Justice Kennedy resigning, it's worth remembering that he was a Reagan appointee, and that Reagan likely thought that Kennedy would make different decisions than he has made. And that outcome isn't unusual, when one looks at the history of Supreme Court justices. Let's keep our collective chins up! I want to live in hope, not in fear. I keep remembering the 1980's, when things seemed quite bleak--but then Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the wall between East and West Germany came down without bloodshed. Perhaps we are at a turning point that we don't recogize yet."

I understand people's despair over this retirement, but let's remember that Kennedy was nominated and confirmed with everyone expecting him to be a conservative bulwark--not a moderate swing vote.  He's been a friend of lefties, as he's protected women's reproductive rights and the rights of homosexuals in a variety of cases.  I will miss his insistence that the dignity of humans must be considered in court cases.

Any time this administration does anything that's rotten (which is a daily occurrence some weeks), my Facebook feed lights up with comparisons to Hitler's rise to power.  I confess to wondering whether or not we're in a similar place to Europe in the 1930's.  I want to believe that we can learn from earlier times when fascist forces rose up rather quickly.  On my good days, I believe.  On my despairing days, I wonder where I should move.

It's good to remember that our nation has faced dark days that didn't end in an apocalypse like Hitler's Germany and World War II.  Perhaps these days are more like the McCarthy era, when people were finally so outraged by the excesses that they were able to ignore the fearmongering and insist on a better future.  Perhaps these days are more like the Nixon regime, where the nation seemed closest to Constitutional crisis, but cooler heads prevailed, and the nation did not split asunder.

In these days where the news leaves me especially prone to despair, I've been taking great solace from the posts I'm seeing from the national gathering of Lutheran youth in Houston.  It's a huge group, and I'm inspired by their hope and enthusiasm.

When I think about just giving up, I will think about these youth.  I will think about my years of training in non-violent resistance to evil.  I will remember that we can't know when the tide is about to turn, when evil leaders will be washed away to sea.

When I need courage, I'll turn to this post on my theology blog, a photo essay about how the fabric of society can be rewoven--and often, from the scraps and frazzled strips, we can make something even more beautiful.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Cottage Odds and Ends

Today is the first day of Summer quarter at my school.  It's odd to have a term starting on a Wednesday; is that why I feel off kilter?

Let me collect some odds and ends here.  Maybe, as in the past, they'll collect themselves into a poem.  Or maybe I'll see a coherent thread that I don't anticipate.

--Last year, I cooked 2 dinners for the camp counselors who came to run our Vacation Bible School program.  This year, others are cooking.  We haven't seen much of them.  But we hear that they like our cottage so much that they wanted to take dinners to go, so that they have more time to spend in the pool.  They're still here for 2 more days, so hopefully all will continue to go well.

--It's the first time we've had anyone stay there since we had the new AC installed.  I'm glad that nothing has happened that we needed to solve.  We haven't even noticed any difference in terms of water pressure. 

--When we showed them the cottage on the first day, they were very complimentary--again, a relief.  I realize that many people are trained to be polite, not to express dismay.  But one woman asked if we'd ever rent it out to say, a college student. At dinner at the parsonage, she had talked about her difficulty finding a place to stay as she goes to college in South Florida.  I said we'd be open to renting it out.

--Of course, I'm not sure how I'd really feel if she turns out to be serious.  I'd probably give it a try.  But I'd draw up some kind of document, just to clarify some items that I didn't clarify last time we had someone live in the cottage in an ongoing basis.

--On Sunday, I did some brief research on what it would take to rent it out short term, in terms of what the city requires--overwhelming!  I think that the rules and regulations are really designed towards controlling the more commercial types who are taking advantage of Air BnB.  For example, the city wants a property manager named, someone who could be on site in 60 minutes if anything happened.

--I can hardly get the cottage ready for the occasional guests who use it.   It's difficult to imagine doing this on a regular basis for paying guests.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Poetry Tuesday: "Artifacts"

A few weeks ago, I got my contributor of The Atlanta Review, which published two of my poems.  Because my writing time is short this morning, let me post one of them here.

You will likely read this and assume I'm writing autobiography, and in a way, I am.  My grandmother did have a wonderful tin of buttons; shaped by the Great Depression, she saved every button before using the cloth from worn out clothes for other purposes.  I have no idea what happened to that button tin.

She did have beautiful hydrangea bushes.  I have often wished I saved some of the soil that she created by composting, but I didn't.  I don't have her soil on the mantel, but I have lots of other artifacts that remind me of times long gone.


 Artifacts


In the end, so little is left
behind: a tin filled with every button
that ever came into the house,
a hydrangea bush blooming blue
in someone else’s back yard.

I sew a button onto one seam
of each garment in my own closet, a hidden
token to remind me of you.

Some might keep ashes,
but I dig from your compost patch,
the place where you buried
the scraps left from every meal you ever ate.

You followed the almanac’s instructions,
but I don’t have that resource.
I blend your Carolina dirt
with the sandy soil that roots
my mango tree.

Some of it I keep in a jar
that once held Duke’s mayonnaise.
I place it on the mantel
of the fireplace I rarely use,
to keep watch with a half burned
candle and a shell
from a distant vacation.


 

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Sewing Circle and the Whaling Ship

Over the week-end, we lost two important literary giants.  Both were old, so their deaths weren't surprises.  Still, more and more it seems an age is passing away.

I think of Donald Hall as the husband of Jane Kenyon, whose poems I loved more than Donald Hall's.  It wasn't until I read the article in The New York Times about Donald Hall this morning that I realized how many books he had written, including important books that purported to anthologize the decade's most important poets.

I was always astonished that he gave up an academic job with tenure to give his attention to writing and the family farm in New England.  I knew that he had cancer and expected to die before Kenyon--and then she got cancer of her own and died, while he had more decades than expected.

One of the most searing poems of loss I ever read was his, but I can't remember which one it was.  I was surprised to find out that he went on to love again, or at least date/have sex, even after writing that poem.  It's not the first time (or the last) that I've assumed to know too much about the author by reading an author's work.

At the end of the article about Hall, I clicked on this obituary about Nina Baym.  Her name is probably not as familiar to people as Hall's, but she's one of the reasons why our literary canon expanded in the 1970's.  She was one of many feminist scholars who asked why we read so many male writers and not females.  She set out to find forgotten female authors, and she did.

In the introduction to Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870, she wrote “I have not unearthed a forgotten Jane Austen or George Eliot, or hit upon even one novel that I would propose to set alongside ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ Yet I cannot avoid the belief that ‘purely’ literary criteria, as they have been employed to identify the best American works, have inevitably had a bias in favor of things male — in favor, say, of whaling ships rather than the sewing circle as a symbol of the human community; in favor of satires on domineering mothers, shrewish wives, or betraying mistresses rather than tyrannical fathers, abusive husbands, or philandering suitors.”

I could argue that her influence was much further spread than Hall's.  She was the editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and so many of us were more familiar with her ideas than we might have realized.  And because of her work, we've recovered all sorts of works of literature that might have been lost.  Those of us who see ourselves in a widening canon may have felt permission to write.  Those of us who didn't see ourselves in that widened canon went on to widen it further.

Well done, good and faithful servants.  May we all be inspired to continue the work.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Rescued from Wreckage

I am rather astonished to be able to say that after 9 months of wreckage, the cottage is back to operational again.  Make no mistake, it still needs some work:  there's a door frame that has rotted out at the bottom, the floors are still concrete (and not the attractive kind of concrete), and the furniture is a mash of leftovers.  But I think we've achieved a level of rustic-cozy, as opposed to rustic-scary.

Because yesterday was stormy, my spouse couldn't work on his yard projects, so he helped--one reason why we were able to get it done.  He focused on what still needs to be done; he's most distressed about the hot water.  The cottage and the main house share the hot water source, which means the cottage has to wait a few minutes for the water to get hot.  It takes longer now that we have an on-demand hot water heater.  At some point, we may get an on-demand system for the cottage alone.  But for now, we need to get the main house repaired so that we see how much money we really have for the cottage.

As I was working on the cottage, I was taken back to the early days of our marriage, where there was one apartment that needed some work before we moved in.  I remember that scrubbing and wondering how the final result would look.

Like that apartment, we have curtains in the cottage that we have made ourselves.  I really like them, but my spouse said, "It's not much better than students who attach sheets up to the windows with push pins."  I like that they pull the eye up from the place where the floor meets the walls, where there are still stains from the flooding.

Yes, the walls need repainting, but we didn't have time for that.  So many repairs and beautification, but so little time.

And part of the problem is a lack of vision/agreement about what to do with the cottage.  One of my friends suggested that I turn it into some sort of space--whether it be office, music/arts studio, or pool party space, that I want to be in.  I understand her point, but I tend to perch on the same pieces of furniture, even when more attractive places open up.

We've thought about doing short term rentals, but that idea is not appealing to me for a variety of reasons.  I feel like I can hardly keep up with my current obligations, so I'm hesitant to take on something as large as managing a vacation rental.  Plus my city has lots of rules and regulations, which makes me even more hesitant.

I'm also hesitant because I think that many people are expecting something luxurious, like something out of a glamorous travel magazine--and I worry that they'll be inclined to complain vociferously and bitterly when it's not what they expect.

I think of our mishmash of furniture, which I find oddly appealing, but I know that others might not.  It reminds me of Mepkin Abbey, when I first went there.  The sheets weren't Egyptian cotton, and neither were the towels.  They were clean and soft from years of use.  Each room had a different type of desk and desk chair--comfortable, but from a much earlier decade.

Right now, the cottage has that type of furniture:  two chairs that were rescued from the trash heap of a school library remodel, a rocker that has the University of South Carolina seal on it, a folding wooden chair with a cushion.  The tables are plastic and battered, but sturdy.  The kitchen has a complete set of white dishes and cooking pans--very serviceable.  The bed has a mattress that's only a few years old, slept on for less than a year.  It has new sheets that I got on sale--otherwise I couldn't have afforded the organic cotton.  It also has a cheery quilt that I made.  The towels are also new and rarely used, and thus, more luxurious than many of our towels. 

The rugs that we got last Sunday don't cover as much of the floor as I had hoped.  But they work well enough for now.

As we sat in the living room yesterday to take it all in, I thought, yes, this will work.  The camp counselors will have a clean, safe place to sleep tonight, with lots of comforts, like the breakfast foods we bought for them yesterday.  That's more than much of the world has.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Bistro Night

Last night, I had planned to go to an early dinner with a friend.  It was going to be a larger group, but when it turned out to be just the two of us, we decided to meet at her house to go to one of the restaurants nearby.  She lives near the very trendy Las Olas district, where new places pop up on a regular basis, and there are always old faithfuls: the creperies, the steakhouses, the European coffee spots.

As I drove over, I saw the storm clouds gather, and the first clap that at first made me wonder if something was wrong with the car before I realized that I was hearing thunder.  When I got to her house, we decided to wait to see what the weather would do.

After 45 minutes, the crashing rains relented, and we decided to walk to see what appealed to us.  The rain had chases away the oven-like heat of the afternoon, so it was a lovely walk. 

My friend had wanted to go to the new French bistro that had opened, and we got to it first.  They had a great early bird special:  3 courses for $26, plus a basket of wonderful bread and a bowl of cornichon pickles. Course 1 was salad or French onion soup (wonderful soup!), course 2 a choice of hangar steak, mussels, or chicken, and dessert could be sherbert or creme brulee (who would choose sherbert when you could have creme brulee?). We were still early enough, so we decided to stay there. 

I got the hangar steak, which came with wonderful, skinny fries.  But the most flavorful part of the meal was the French onion soup, although the strings of cheese made true enjoyment difficult.  I always have that problem with that soup.

Actually, I'd have been happy to sit there with the bread basket and a hunk of butter.  Or just to sip wine and watch the rain.

At the end of our time at the restaurant, there was a singer. She wasn't bad, but her speaker had a bit of a buzz to it. I was glad we weren't going to be there for her whole gig. I preferred the music they played when we first got there: an interesting mix of Elton John, Queen, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, those types of music. I have been hearing (in other places) snippets from the new Jay Z/Beyonce album, and I just can't understand why everyone is rapturous, because their vocal stylings just IRRITATE me--I want to say, "Quit mumbling and sing. And when you sing, open your throat and try to make it sound less guttural."


Nothing makes me feel older than trying to listen to modern music!  But I digress.

We walked back to my friend's house, on sidewalks that had us pass by beautiful houses and canals.  I don't always appreciate the beauty that South Florida offers, and I'm always grateful when I have a chance to remember why we moved here.

When we first started back, the rain fell in random, fat drops, but it soon turned into a drizzle.  In my running days, I used to say that if there had to be moisture in the air, I'd prefer rain to humidity, and that's still true.  As we walked, I joked that we should form a bistro club:  our goal could be to try every French restaurant in town!  I said, "It would be better than a book club."

I love the idea of book clubs, but they often disappoint me.  I have so little time to read, and I often don't like the books that others choose.  Or, I like them, but I'd have preferred to spend my time reading something else.

A French bistro club!  Now there might be a club I could enjoy.

Last night was the kind of night I thought I'd have all the time as a grown up.  But now that I'm grown up, I realize that I appreciate that kind of experience because it's a contrast to my usual home cooking, which has a coziness that I'd miss if I only went to restaurants.  I feel lucky that I can have both.  

Friday, June 22, 2018

Happy Birthday, Octavia Butler!

Today when I went to the Chrome browser, I was delighted to find a Google doodle that celebrates Octavia Butler's birthday.  Ah, Octavia Butler.  If I could bring back one writer who left us to soon, she would make the short list.

I don't reread her works often--but I'm not rereading many works these days.  So many books, so little time.  But she's one of the writers who formed me.

The first book of hers that I read was Parable of the Sower, which I read shortly after it was published.  It was a powerful book.  I'd say that I couldn't put it down, but I had to periodically to remind myself that I didn't live in the dystopian world depicted.

I was happy to discover that she'd written other books, that I wouldn't have to wait to read more.  And what a wide variety of books!

One of my colleagues at work remarked that Kindred was her favorite, so I read that one shortly after Parable of the Sower.  In this novel, a black, female writer gets sucked back to antebellum Virginia. It wasn't until reading this novel that I fully understood the horrors of slavery, the various threats of that time period. To make the plot more interesting, she quickly realizes that she's being transported back to her ancestors, which limits some of her choices: she can't just kill those people who threaten her; if her ancestors die, what will happen to her? It's not one of my favorites of all the books she wrote, but it is one that I'm glad that I read--several times.

In 2001, I read Wild Seed, one of the most inventive books I've ever read. At first, I thought I was reading about a different world, but eventually I figured out that I was reading about the earliest years of the slave trade. What interesting wording--the slave trade, as if there was only one. I mean the slave trade which brought Africans to the North American continent and the outlying islands. It's an amazing book which deals with gender, race, and history in such amazing ways that it's impossible to look at those subjects the same way again.

Butler's life as a writer has also been an inspiration and a comfort.  I was so happy when she won the MacArthur award. I read an interview with her in Poets and Writers shortly after she won that award. She talked about the value of money to a writer, how having a funding source freed her to write all the books she'd been storing up but couldn't write because she had to work. And in her early years, that work was often menial labor, the kind that leaves one too tired to write.

Butler was a writer who writers could love. Like many of my favorite writers, she stresses habit and persistence over talent and inspiration. Here's a typical quote (found on GoodReads): "First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice."

Good advice in any number of areas--persistence and habit will get us much further than talent or luck.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Success?

We live in dizzying times.  After weeks of insisting that he could do nothing, because the law is the law, President Trump ended the policy of separating children from their parents at the southern U.S. border.

Did he have a change of heart?  Is this executive order simply one of a number of ways to manipulate his way to what he wants?  Does he have a plan or a vision?

I confess that I do not know, and I can see any number of scenarios which might be possible.  Or I may be looking for a method where there is only madness.  As I watched the news last night, I felt incredible weariness.  I feel like I've been working on immigration issues, particularly those that revolve around Central America, for over 30 years now, and we haven't improved the lives of anyone.  Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador may have slightly less repressive regimes and civil wars may be over for the moment, but civilians are still being terrorized on all sides.

I also see my brain stuck in its usual rut.  No matter how many successes my brain sees, it always thinks about ways that improvement is still needed.  So let me take a minute to express joy at the end of the evil policy of family separation.

I don't use the word "evil" often.  I'll use any number of other words to express negative aspects, but I reserve the word "evil."  This policy was evil, pure and simple--not misguided, not wrong, but evil. 

I wasn't sure that this administration would be influenced by our collective outrage.  I am glad to see that hearts can be softened, even if it's for reasons of optics, not morality. 

I realize that a letter from someone like me, an ordinary citizen trying to cobble together a middle class existence, doesn't bear the same weight as others.  I suspect that the Pope's outrage didn't soften administration hearts either.  I'm not sure what did.  The thought of damage to those running in 2016 elections?  The counsel of first ladies, present and past?

I realize that those families will be held in those tent cities that went up.  I'm not happy about that either, but I've always had problems with my country's repressive immigration policies.  But at least children will not be ripped away from parents. 

I am still fretful about what new outrages may be in store.  But I'd be more frightened if we hadn't been able to solve this issue, if we were still separating families at Christmas of 2018, if no one had been able to intervene.

I am happy for these examples of what it takes to defeat evil, even if the fight is far from over.  We wrote letters and e-mails and made phone calls; some of us went to the border to record what was happening; a wide variety of groups both religious and secular raised voices against evil; on and on I could go--and this time, we've won a victory.

This morning, let me pause to take a breath, to say, "Good job."  Let us always be a force for peace and justice in the world.  Let me pray:  give us the strength for the next onslaught.  Let us not be overwhelmed at the size of the task of caring for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed.  Onward!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Notes from a Rustic-Cozy Week

It's been a strange week so far, with repeat visits from insurance adjusters and AC installers, this feeling that for every step forward, we may get knocked back 4 steps--but perhaps not.  The AC seems to be an easy fix.  Maybe it's not 4 steps back, but a pause.

These are the days that make me feel like I'll never have sustained focus for a project ever again.  Let me record some impressions which may twist together into a poem or may just shed some light on this week in June.

--One online class will soon come to an end.  I wrote myself a note to remind myself to do the final grades this week-end.  In the shadowed light of the early morning kitchen, it looks like I wrote Do Final Oracles, instead of Do Final Grades.  What would the Final Oracle have to say to us?

--I bought one of those robot vacuum cleaners thinking that I'd free up some time and have cleaner floors.  But it's sort of like having a puppy:  I leave it to its own devices, and it gets into trouble.  I have to rescue it from some piece of furniture that it's gotten stuck under or pull some cords out of it.

--On Monday, my spouse made a mac and cheese dish in the cast iron skillet on the grill.  Even though he greased the pan, much of the mac and cheese wanted to remain stuck in the pan.  So, we had a day of scraping and soaking and scraping and soaking again.  Last night, as I was scrubbing the pan, I thought about the years of cleaning up after my grandmother's meals.  She'd whip out a bit of steel wool and make cleaning that pan look so easy.  As I scrubbed, I wondered if I was not only scrubbing out bits of our Monday meal but long lost dinners:  pork chops and Salisbury steak and gravy made of meat juice, flour, and milk.

--As we've been working on getting the cottage ready for the camp counselors who will be arriving Sunday, we've also been talking about what to do with the cottage.  We were talking about what it would take to get the cottage to anything rentable, particularly on a short term basis, like Air BnB. Rustic-cozy might not appeal to that crowd.  I had a vision of a monastic retreat house, something for everyone who has ever yearned for Thomas Merton’s hermitage. I have no idea how to find those people or if they’d be willing to go on that kind of retreat.

--What do I mean by rustic-cozy?  No TV.  Perhaps no wi-fi.  Concrete floors--but with a rug on the floors.  Flowered curtains and quilts.  A serviceable shower, but not a garden tub.  A serviceable kitchen without a lot of work space.

--I've been eating a lot of watermelon--big tubs of cut watermelon pieces have been on sale at Doris' for $4.99 a tub.  I buy it thinking I'll make a tub last several days.  I often eat the whole thing.  It's delicious and refreshing--and filling!  If I kept receipts, some day I'd look back and marvel at how much I spent during the month of June on watermelon.

--My sleep schedule is stranger than usual.  As I tried to sleep on Sunday night, I was stiff and sore and restless.  At some point Monday morning, I fell into a deep sleep--and missed my chance to go to spin class.  I almost never oversleep, but I woke up at 5:50 and decided against a mad rush to get ready to go by 6.  I had a good walk.  This morning, I gave up on sleep about 1:15.

--One of the benefits of being up early is the opportunity to write in my offline journal and to work on a poem.  I've been thinking of my old backpacking equipment, of the elegant simplicity of it all.  I've been thinking about snakebite kits and all the snakes of modern life. 

--I don't want to give up on last week's poem that I was trying to develop around the central image of a bird who build a nest in a Christmas wreath--a symbol of hospitality?

And now, it's time to move to the next part of my day:  spin class and then work.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

You Are Not Powerless: Keep Writing

On Friday, I wrote this post about ways we could protest the administration's approach to deterring illegal immigration by separating parents from children.  Throughout the day, I wrote several Facebook posts to let people know how easy it is to write to their senators and representatives.  I tried to space my posts so that I'd show up in people's FB feeds periodically to remind them to let their voices be heard.

And of course, I wrote my own e-mails:  to both senators, to my representative, to the Department of Justice, and to Donald Trump.

I want to record the responses, because I find them interesting.  Thus far, I've gotten no response from the DOJ.  I got an e-mail from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz which seemed like an auto-reply message to let me know that my e-mail had been received.  I got an interim message from Senator Marco Rubio that said it was an interim message and that I'd get a more detailed response later.  Those two messages came just after I sent mine.  I got Senator Bill Nelson's response yesterday evening, which detailed what he is doing to put a stop to this inhumane policy, including co-sponsoring S. 3036, the Keep Families Together Act.

The strangest response was from President Trump, an e-mail which told me all about his successful summit with North Korea. I expected either no response, or a response that told me that I didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't expect a response which discussed a different aspect of the president's week in such great detail.

I may send follow up e-mails today, or perhaps I'll make some phone calls. Let me cut and paste the contact info here, to make it easier for us all to find:

Here is the site for the House of Representatives contact info, and this site will give you information for the Senate.

This website explains our options for contacting President Trump.

Contact the Department of Justice in one of the ways explained on this site.

Here's the original e-mail that I sent; feel free to use it as a template for your own communication:

I am writing because the current policy of separating immigrant parents from children at the border is beyond cruel. I am also concerned that we no longer consider domestic violence or gang violence to be grounds for asylum, but I am MOST concerned about the fate of these children who are separated from their parents. I know that there are bills coming to Congress next week that will address this issue, and I wanted you to know how much I want this issue solved so that parents and children are never separated in this way again. Thank you so much for anything you can do.

We may feel like we're powerless but we're not. And the truly powerless are counting on us. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day Pictures (in Words)

On Facebook, I'm seeing some very old pictures of fathers.  My pictures of my very young father holding me as a baby are not digitized.  My dad had his Air Force hair cut, and my mom had very 60's clothes (not the flower child version of the 60's, but the Jackie Kennedy stylish 60's as it worked its way into fashion for the masses by the middle 60's).

My pictures of my dad in my youth are also not digitized.  The pictures in my head probably don't exist.  I'm seeing my dad letting us use the pop up camper to play our Little House on the Prairie game.  I'm seeing the fridge and stove that my dad built out of wood and painted, a very early toy.  I'm seeing a world of board games that my dad played, along with chess, which my father taught me in the first grade.  I would not have had that patience.

My pictures of my dad in my teenage years exist only in yellowing form, also not digitized.  Those were the years of road races, running events which we ran together, at least to begin.  I was a plodding runner, so my dad would finish his race and then loop back to find me and run the rest of the race with me.  Somehow, he did this without making me feel ashamed of my lack of ability.

I don't have any digitized pictures of my dad when I was in college.  What kind of picture would capture us arguing about politics but managing to still love each other?

I wish I had a picture of that night in 1989 when my dad just happened to be in town on business and was eating dinner with us.  We had the news on while we prepared pasta, and we got to be together when the first news broke of what would become the dismantling of the wall that divided East and West Germany.  Dad said, "I think this will be a momentous night."  Yes, indeed.

As with all my relationships, the one with my dad has been difficult at times, while joyous at times.  I'm grateful that we've survived the tough times.  I know it could have been otherwise.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Cottage AC Update

The big drama of the week was the AC in the cottage.  If you've been reading this blog, you might say, "I thought you had that fixed."  So did I.  In fact, I wrote this blog post about the completion of the project.

On Sunday at church, I found out that lodging was still needed for the camp counselors who will be coming on June 24 to run our Vacation Bible School.  Months ago at a planning meeting, I had taken our cottage out of the running because I thought we might be living there as our flooring project in the main house progressed.  Much has changed since that planning meeting. 

On Sunday, I said that we'd have the cottage ready, although it would be rustic--by which I meant that the walls still needed repainting, and there would be no TV, and the flooring would be concrete.  We agreed that it would be fine.  The counselors had volunteered for camp, after all, not to be childcare workers at a luxury resort.

When we got home from church, we went to the cottage to strategize--and we found out that at some point during these damp weeks, the AC had stopped working, and mold had taken over almost every wall.  We thought that maybe we just didn't understand the remote controls to the system, so we reset settings.  I scrubbed mold off the walls with a bleach solution.  It came off easily and hasn't come back.

Over the next day, it was clear that the AC wasn't working at all, so I called the company, and they've spent the week isolating a leak, fixing it, and refilling the Freon.  I am surprised by how relieved I was last night to have a cool cottage.

It's so depressing to think a major problem is fixed, just to have to deal with it again.  I know--it's a part of home ownership, and I'm lucky to have a home.  But it's wearying.

Now it's time to take the cottage from scary rustic to cozy rustic.  I'm only a week behind--but it can be done!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Stop this Cruel Policy!

Today is a good day to take some actions on this administration's cruel policy of separating parents from children at the border.  I didn't realize until it was too late that yesterday was a day of protest, but clearly it will take more than one day to stop this evil.

Next week Congress will vote on an immigration bill that will call for keeping families together.  I plan to call my senators and representative today.  If you don't know who represents you, this website will tell you.  Here is the site for the House of Representatives contact info, and this site will give you information for the Senate.  I plan to write, call, and e-mail.

I also plan to contact Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  If you would like to do that too, this site gives you options.  Sessions' recent complaints about the way that church groups are interpreting his actions suggests to me that he's listening.  His interpretation of Romans suggests to me that he needs to go back to Sunday School. 

And while we're at it, why not contact President Trump?  This website explains our options.

I don't know if any of these actions will make a difference, but we must try.  We cannot let our country continue down this road.  We cannot take children from their parents because their parents are fleeing a horrible situation in their home countries. 

Even if we disagree on this issue, the uptick in these separations means that there's a unanticipated drain on resources.  There are several nonprofits providing vital free legal aid that need financial support: The Texas Civil Rights Project; the Florence Project in Arizona; and Kids in Need of Defense and The Young Center, which work nationwide.

We're running out of room in the places where we send these children to stay.  I plan to donate to charities that assist these immigrant families.  While I'm taking action today, I plan to make a donation to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a group which is assisting those separated families.  Go here to donate or to help in other ways.  If you want to assist a local charity, this New York Times article notes that the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is helping families with supplies and humanitarian relief.

These are the days that break the hearts of caring people, but we can't shut down.  We may feel we have no power, but it's important to remember that we do.  It's important to use that power as a force for good in the world.  Lots of people who are truly powerless need us.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Spots of Sadness

This has been a week of spots of sadness:  not the sadness that swamps my little boat, but a dark spot that I can sail out of, but it's still odd to find so many of them in a week.  Let me list them:

--On Sunday, we discovered that the relatively new AC in the cottage isn't working.  It's still under warranty.  But it's frustrating, because I thought we had that task finished.  I thought I could work on getting the cottage back into livable shape so that the VBS camp counselors could stay there the last week of June.  I still think that can happen.

--I'm sad because although the cottage was never glamorous, it had a certain rustic charm.  And now it has no charm.

--I heard from the once-friend who was the first to live in the newly recreated cottage.  When she left, I had hopes that she might find happiness.  It does not sound like that has happened.

--I feel sadness because there has been so much loss.  Dealing with the loss (like calling contractors, writing to the insurance to appeal the denial of claims, calling the AC company, cleaning the cottage) makes me feel the sadness of the loss and the enormity of the recovery tasks ahead.

--My high school Facebook group has been posting pictures--can it really have been 35 years since graduation?  I feel sadness at the losses there too, particularly the death of my best friend.

But let me remember that in the midst of this sadness, there are still lots of times of quiet joy:  the front porch, the pool, the beach.  Let me go for a walk and count my blessings.