Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Maria Montessori and the Modern Office

I remember back in 1992, when I got my first full-time job teaching in a community college. There was much talk about the paperless office, which many assumed we would see in the next 5 years.

I am here to report that we are not there yet. Not even close. I will need to plant at least a dozen trees to make up for all the paper being used to document faculty development in my department.

I spent almost 5 hours yesterday redoing this year's set of faculty development forms to make it match the model that we've recently adopted. Yes, we adopted it after I had my faculty use the old model. The new model requires that we put in more specific dates than we had before. I could have made each individual faculty member redo the form, but since I had them all electronically, I just retyped the information to match the form. Then I made multiple copies.

I will also be making multiple copies of last year's forms and supporting documentation to send to the accrediting agency who wants them, even though we just sent them a complete set a few months ago.

Yes, many trees must die and postal carriers must hurt their backs and documents must be shipped across continents. Paperless office?

I try not to get bogged down in thinking about all the things I'd rather be doing with my time. I'm paid well to assemble these documents, and perhaps they will assume an importance that I can't see now. I think of Shakespeare and wonder what he would have rather been doing. We assume that he loved writing those plays that are such classics, but I suspect he begrudged the time it took away from his sonnet writing. Or maybe he had visions of elaborate stage sets, but he couldn't ever find funding.

Today is the birthday of Maria Montessori, the woman who helped convince us that children are not empty baskets waiting to be filled, but instead, that they are individuals with gifts and skills. She believed, as do many (a majority?) of educators these days, that the goal of an educator should be to help children discover these gifts and develop them. I see these ideas even in higher education.

My mother used to talk about how sad she was that she and my dad couldn't afford to send me to a Montessori school, but I never felt deprived. I had a Montessori mom! My favorite memories are of going to the library and being allowed to check out any books I wanted. I had all the art supplies a child could use. I don't remember my parents ever mocking any of my creations. I remember a fellow kindergarten student telling me that I drew the sun wrong, but my parents never discouraged me.

I wonder what Maria Montessori would make of our work lives. I'd like to see a workplace that does the same thing as a Montessori school does: a workplace that thinks about the gifts that each employee could bring to the workplace, a workplace that wants to maximize every worker's full potential. As an administrator, I try to set up ideal settings, within my powers, for faculty to make the most of their talents and skills--and hopefully, so that students too, will find a place to discern their destiny.

Even tasks which feel like mindless copying and filing lead to this outcome. With no accreditation, we won't have a school very long. And so I sort and copy and file. Along the way, I take time to marvel in the wide range of interests and experiences that faculty are documenting. I try to get rid of the resentment and instead to fill my mind with contemplation of how more of these activities could be encouraged and how I can enable the best in faculty and students.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Once More, Into the Paperwork Abyss

Yesterday, we watched the movie Julie and Julia. I saw it when it first came out and wanted to see it again. I wanted a movie about food and France. But more importantly, for this work week, I wanted a movie that showed that even when one has to redo something over and over again, it could lead to greatness--or at least, the end of a project. I love the vision of Julia Child as a writer and a more rigorous writer than most of us will ever be.

This will likely be one of those weeks where I feel like my well-trained brain is going to waste at work. I have to revisit a batch of documents once again, make changes that weren't anticipated earlier, and make lots and lots of copies. It will likely not be as bad as I think. But it will be annoying, because I thought we were done with this process.

I know that I'm lucky, because I really like my job most days. I work with a great group of people, and most days, I really believe in the tasks that we must do on the job. Maybe I'll get lucky, and I can get through the document revision process all in one day. And then I can get back to the processes that are more important.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Missing my Grandmother's Dirt

Last night we watched the movie Bottle Shock, a movie about how Napa Valley wines won respect in France. It's got great messages about love of the land and commitment to a large vision, whether it be a vineyard or more opportunities.

There were several speeches where characters waxed euphoric about the soil. My spouse and I can wax euphoric about the farmland where some of our family members still live. And I still miss my grandmother's compost strip. She didn't compost in the highly scientific way that so many of us do these days. No, she simply collected her kitchen scraps and several times a week, she dug them into the soil along the separate garage in the back yard.

She did this long after she stopped gardening. I now wish I had collected some of that dirt more regularly. It was black and luscious looking. I bet it would have grown anything. When I'm back in Greenwood, South Carolina, I occasionally drive by the house. I wonder how the current residents would react if I stopped and asked for permission to dig up some of the dirt out back by the fig trees.

And then I think about how odd it would probably look to the airline security people. I know that my husband has been steadily composting our own kitchen scraps and lawn refuse, and perhaps some day, we'll have soil as good as those our families enjoyed in Indiana, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

No we won't. We don't have that kind of time before we either die or the sea swallows up this part of the peninsula and returns the soil to sand.

But in the meantime, we'll continue with our garden experiments, down here in exile, missing the soil of our ancestral lands.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Locavore Experiments

I've been rereading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book that makes me want to run away to some rural place with good soil where I can grow all of my own food too. At the very least, I should start eating more fruit and vegetables. It's the end of summer, after all. Nature's bounty should surround me.

I'm craving those roadside stands that exist all over the rural roads of South Carolina, where you can pick up a basket of peaches or tomatoes that were grown just over the fence. I don't really crave a pick your own experience, at least not in this hot, humid weather.

So, I've been going to some of our local farmer's market. Now, by local, I don't mean that I get food grown locally. In the last five years, many of the few, remaining empty fields in South Florida have been used to grow condo complexes, not food. So, I go to these farmer's markets, and essentially I get the same produce that I'd find in a grocery store.

Is it cheaper? Maybe. Better quality? Maybe. Is my carbon footprint reduced? No.

But still, it's been nice to snack on cucumbers and cantaloupe this week. This week-end, I plan to grill eggplants and peppers; I have a hankering for Baba Ghanouj. I'll need pita bread--there's a great Middle Eastern store that sells pita and the most piquant feta cheese I've ever eaten. Maybe this week, I'll give up my locavore quest and frequent food markets that feature foods from far away.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Celebrate Dialectics!

Today is the birthday of Hegel, who is perhaps most famous for his idea of the dialectic, and that idea, perhaps, was made most famous by Marx (think, think, creaky brain, way back to undergrad Sociology and Philosophy classes--do I have this right?). If you've lived any amount of time at all, you're probably familiar with this dialectic idea: the seeds of any movement's demise can be found in its success.

So, we're vigilant with our eating, we lose weight, but eventually we get tired of being vigilant, and so regain weight. We see this in political life: one politician or group or idea succeeds but imperfectly, and those imperfections ultimately breed backlash, which leads to the next successful but imperfect movement, which breeds the next backlash.

Ah, the conflict of opposites. To my knowledge, Hegel doesn't give us any solutions.

Today is also the birthday of Theodore Dreiser. I remember reading him during the summer between high school and college, that high school where I was convinced that I hadn't gotten a good high school education, and I undertook to rectify that by reading classics. I remember hearing about how Dreiser's books were so shocking, and as with Gone With the Wind, I kept waiting for the shocking parts.

I look back to that girl that I was in 1983, reading An American Tragedy by the YMCA pool, working on my tan, working on my brain, hoping to be ready for college by the end of summer. I was more ready than I knew.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Summer of Broken Things: "Deliverance" Turns 40

Yesterday at my theology blog, I was musing about how many objects we've broken this summer, some fixable, some not: a computer, two watch bands, a lawnmower, a floor lamp, and more wine glasses than I can keep track of.

Today I have destruction on the brain because 5 years ago, Hurricane Katrina would have crossed South Florida. Ah, 2005, the year of brokenness: my mother-in-law died after suffering a series of horrifying medical mishaps, my spouse left his toxic job, Hurricane Katrina caused our ficus to fall over on top of our shed which housed tools and bikes and leftover stuff from all sorts of projects, and then, Hurricane Wilma slammed into us in October, damaging our roof and the roofs of many other homes, churches, and businesses. It was the kind of year that I am amazed to have survived at all, and I hesitate to say that, because I know how many ways it could have been worse: I didn't lose my spouse or my marriage or any family members or my health. In short, I suffered losses I could survive.

This morning I read a great article about James Dickey, an article which focuses on his spare novel, Deliverance. It took me back to the summer of 1991, the summer that I studied for Comps and wrote my dissertation. I took breaks to watch videos and work on counted cross stitch projects. My spouse and I had one car, and one day, when he had the car at work, I really wanted to watch a movie. Luckily I could walk to the library. Unfortunately, the movie selection was slim.

I checked out Deliverance, but I didn't expect to find it very interesting. I expected to have it on as background noise while I stitched. I didn't get much stitching done. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the movie.

I'm not a big James Dickey fan, I must confess. I don't care for most of his poetry, and I find his prose unreadable. His literary reputation is tarnished for me by the person that I saw on the campus of the University of South Carolina. I'm not sure I ever saw him sober over the 5 years that I was there.

My opinion of him is, however, tempered by my knowledge of how supportive he was of young writers. Generation after generation of creative writers at USC can attest to his generosity. My friend worked for him as his personal assistant one summer, and he was always gentlemanly, which I didn't expect, given his reputation and some of his lecherous behavior on campus.

So, my feelings about Dickey are mixed, but that movie is incredible. As a Southerner descended from mountain folk, I have mixed feelings about the depiction of the backwoods characters, and yet, I've been in the backwoods, and I know that there are people there, as there are everywhere, that you don't want to meet in a dark place. Or, as the movie reminds us, even in a well-lit place.

Deliverance is one of those American tales: men against nature, men against savage men, men against themselves. And yes, I'm using the term men in its gendered sense.

The one upside to surviving hurricanes is that I'm reminded of how humans can pull together after battling nature. I think of those post-Katrina and post-Wilma times, and I remember sitting on a porch, talking to my neighbor who had been tormenting us with his wild parties, some months every Saturday. He talked about his quest for a good elementary school for his child, and I saw him as fully human for the first time. We had a chain saw, and he had downed trees. We pulled together. He helped us clear our yard, and we helped him with his. He rarely has wild parties anymore.

So far, the hurricane season this year has been fairly quiet, and I hope it continues to be so. I'd like to avoid the community building experience that a fierce hurricane can deliver. Deliverance reminds us that savagery is never far from the surface. But this summer, I'm rereading Barbara Kingsolver, who reminds us that community can be formed in the most unlikely circumstances. I'm rereading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and reflecting on how the land can nourish us, even if we don't have much of it. It's a good reminder, in this summer of savage weather.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mastering Yet More Technology

This morning, I recorded two poems of mine which will be appearing before the end of the year at the fabulous online journal Qarrtsiluni. The last time they chose my poems, one of the editors called me and recorded me reading my poems into the phone. That in itself seemed amazing--until this morning.

We've since gotten a laptop, but I was leery of trying to record. Years ago, a now-closed journal asked me to record, and I tried reading my poems into a microphone connected to the desk top computer. I never quite figured out how to do it. I'm sure I didn't have the right software either. It was a headache through and through.

This morning's experience was everything I would expect from new technology. It was intuitive and easy to use. Simple, in fact.

Now, I'm not spending time right now figuring out how to improve the quality. I'm sending these versions to the editors who have magical equipment. If they can't improve it, I'll try again. So far, my attempts are simply reading again, draft after draft, if you will. I may have software on this machine that would do even more, like cutting out the background noise. There's a bit of popping and static.

In short, I'm not ready for podcasting. But it's cool to realize that I can do these simple tasks on a computer. It's cool to master my fears of new technology.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hurricane Anniversaries

This week marks a week of grim hurricane anniversaries. Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina formed, and most of us remember the rest. Down here in South Florida, many of us suffered a fair amount of damage from that category 1 storm. At my house, we had a huge ficus tree before the storm; it stretched across the whole back fence. It rained all day as Katrina approached, and the leafy branches drooped lower and lower. And then, about 4 in the afternoon, we heard this enormous creak and the whole tree tipped over.

Luckily, it didn't crush the house. We saw the enormous power of that tree though. It smushed a shed of ours. Maybe I can find a picture and post it in time for the anniversary of that storm's South Florida landfall (August 25).

This is also the week that Hurricane Andrew roared into Miami (August 24). We had just moved to Charleston, SC, so we kept track of the hurricane's early progress. My main memory of that storm is the little children who came to stay with our next door neighbors. We played softball with them in our front yard, and they talked about living in Homestead and how they would go home soon. They lived in our neighborhood until Christmas.

Happily right now, the Atlantic has only one disturbance, and I predict it will arc away from land. Unfortunately, historically, the time from mid-August until early October is the busiest for hurricanes. Here's hoping the season continues to be quiet and calm.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Time from Acceptance to Publication

This week, I received my contributor's copy of an anthology. You ask, why is this noteworthy? This one sets the record for the longest time between acceptance and actual publication.

I wrote the poem sometime in 2000, after hearing Martin Goldsmith talk about his book The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Love and Music in Nazi Germany. He told a story about his parents, one of whom played flute and one of whom played violin, and their experiences both in Nazi Germany and afterward. The fictional speaker I created has a different narrative trajectory than Goldsmith's parents.

I've always been fascinated by those apocalyptic moments in history, and how people decide whether to stay or go. I've also been intrigued by what people decide to take with them.

Soon after I wrote the poem, I saw a call for submissions for an anthology about reeds and rushes. I thought about musical instruments, but as I read through the anthology, I'm amazed by how many ways one can translate that unifying image.

The poem was accepted some time in 2001. Think about how much has changed since then. I typed that poem on a small Mac desktop with a 9 inch screen, which I had owned since 1993, and I bought it from my mom's church's youth group director, who had owned it several years before that. Back in those days, a computer was significantly more expensive, so I didn't upgrade frequently.

I sent that poem off as I was driving from adjunct job to adjunct job. I sent that poem off before the events of September 11.

That poem was accepted, and I waited and waited and waited for the anthology. As I waited, I got a full-time faculty position. As I waited, I was promoted to Assistant Chair of my department. As I waited, I was promoted to Chair.

To be honest, I had just about given up ever seeing the anthology. It's always interesting to send a poem out into the world and to meet it again after it's been published. But so far, I've never had as long a wait as I've had with this poem.

I still like it, although it's a bleak poem. Here it is:

Damnable Instruments

I have piped miracles
with this flute. Even when the Nazis
shut us out of their culture, we created
our own operas and orchestras.
They took away our instruments, but I could hide
my flute. And we could always sing.

My flute bought my passage out. I hated to sell
it, but a trade for a ticket to freedom
seemed fair. And I got a job teaching tiny
fingers to work magic on shrunken pipes.

Then the letters streamed in. Every family
member left behind implored me to find
a way to rescue them. I did my best,
but I was no Pied Piper. Besides, Hitler’s
ears, deaf to the magic of music, certainly would pay
no attention to my desperate notes.
And music teachers made such little bits of money.

My mother’s correspondence grew increasingly desperate.
She accused me of hardening my heart,
of only being interested in my music,
the way I’d always been. Did she not know
of my frantic attempts which consumed
all my free time while my flute pouted
in its case? Did she not meet me
in my nightmares, not see me watching
in the shadows, unable to stop her tortures?

Damnable instrument. Every time I touch
it, I think of my mother’s hysterical accusations
that I love my flute more than her. I cease
all playing, cut my teaching ties.
I get a job selling shoes and sturdy
boots, so much more practical than
ethereal music.

This poem appears in Reeds and Rushes: Pitch, Buzz, and Hum, edited by Kathleen Burgess, published by Pudding House Publications, which also publishes my chapbook. Go here to buy either or both.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Summer Joy List

Here we are, closer to September than to the summer months. In some parts of the nation, children are already back at school; our public schools start this coming Monday. In much of the nation, you can look forward to some refreshing autumnal air in the next few weeks. Alas, down here in South Florida, we have several more months of sweltering summer-like conditions.

Well, let me see if I can adjust my attitude. There are many summer delights I haven't had enough of. Let me make a list of all the things I want to enjoy in the coming weeks:

--I need more watermelon. I've only had watermelon once this summer. When I was a kid, I used to declare that I would eat 8 pieces of bacon every morning. Clearly, that's a bad idea. But my kid self would have also eaten watermelon every day, if it had been available. My adult self should take that cue.

--We should still have a few weeks of wild salmon, last summer's great pleasure. I'd like to grill salmon at least once more.

--I've gotten out of the habit of going to the beach as the day settles into sunset. We've still got some time to enjoy that. In the winter months, I travel home from work in the dark. But in the summer, I can go home from work and still have time to get over to the beach.

--I'd like some more farmer's market meals. I love corn on the cob, cucumbers, good tomatoes, and cantaloupe--a cheap, nutritious, delicious dinner!

--More swimming! I'm lucky to have a friend with a pool, so I've done some swimming this summer. But I haven't gone into the ocean. When I was a child, you couldn't get me out of the water. When did I become this adult who lives 3 miles from the ocean, walks beside it, but never swims?

What's on your list of summer treats? There's still time!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Poetry Prompts from Old Notebooks

I write my poems on purple legal pads. I also take notes: metaphors that would make a good poem, something that would make a great symbol, an idea that's not ready to be a poem but needs to be recorded. I always think that I'll go back and do something with it all, but I rarely do.

I am not one of those people plagued with writer's block. On the contrary, I'm plagued by lack of time. I have more ideas than I have time to get onto paper or pixels.

However, last night I found myself with a stretch of time and no real plan, unlike some evenings, when I've been anticipating alone time in the house, and I've spent a week plotting how I'll use it. So, I flipped through my old notebooks while listening to this fabulous interview with Natasha Trethewey on NPR's Fresh Air.

Usually, I have some sense of the poem when I start to write. Often, I've composed the whole poem in my head before I start to write. I'm open to inspiration, because I know my brain likes to dart to unexpected places, but I often have a destination in mind.

Last night, I was looking through notebooks from 2008. You might argue that my subconscious had been working on these ideas for 2 years, but I often recorded ideas and promptly moved on to something else. If my subconscious has been working, it's been working very stealthily.

I had a sputtery start from this prompt, which I had written in an e-mail and thought might make a poem: "Why sit at home staring at the dirty laundry?" I only had that line, and couldn't go very much further.

Undaunted, I flipped a few more pages. I came across another fragment: Christmas Eve at Ground Zero. No explanation, but I think I remember a news story that talked about an impromptu Christmas Eve service. I decided not to Google, but just to see where I went. I also decided to avoid the current controversy with the mosque. I thought about the fact that Ground Zero didn't always refer to the September 11 event and went from there. I have a good first draft.

I still felt energized, so I kept flipping through the notebook. I had tried to write a poem entitled "Praying the Breviary at 30,000 Feet," but I couldn't make it work at the time. Last night, I was able to create a good second draft.

I flipped to a different page and came across this notation of an actual event when one of our institutional effectiveness guys was staring at the huge part of the HVAC system that's usually hidden in a gigantic closet but was exposed to view as repairs were being made. I had this title: "The Institutional Effectiveness Expert Considers the HVAC System." I fictionalized a bit: one of our institutional effectiveness experts has a degree in Industrial Design, but I gave the character in the poem a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

By the end of that poem, the interview on Fresh Air was over, and I was feeling a bit wrung out. So, I turned off the electronics and resisted the siren call of the television. I picked up Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book that one of my book clubs will be discussing next. I read it several years ago when it first came out, so it's a good reading choice for my brain when it's tired.

This morning hasn't been as productive, since I had to take the car to the shop. But given last night's wonderful experience, I'm giving myself a break.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Values of Higher Education

The rest of the nation currently is discussing what many of us have been pondering for some time: is a college degree worth the money? I'm catching up on old NPR shows, and I'm enjoying, even as I write, this conversation at Diane Rehm's show. One caller just said that he had graduated with $120,000 in loans. Yikes. And that's an undergraduate degree.

Once upon a time, we could be fairly sure that an undergraduate education would pay for itself. You might graduate with some debt, but you'd pay it off in small chunks, and eventually, that debt would be gone, and you'd have a better job than you would have had without the college degree.

Once upon a time, you could go to a community college for 6 months or a year or two and emerge with a certificate that would pay for itself immediately. You could learn to be an electrician or a plumber or a dental assistant, and you'd be set. You might not have any debt at all. Until recently, you could go to a community college for free, if you were a resident and weren't middle class or rich.

Once upon a time, you could go to grad school, get paid a pittance, but not have to pay much tuition. You could get a Ph.D. for $150 a semester or a year (yes, you could--I know, because I did). You'd be sick of pasta by the time you were done, and you'd be a vegetarian whether you wanted to be or not, but you wouldn't have a huge amount of debt with no job prospects. You might have no job prospects, but at least you wouldn't be saddled with debt.

I worry about the amount of debt that students take on now--and I'm not the only one. Those of us in for-profit higher education are nervously watching the progress of the Gainful Employment Act now making its way through Congress. And those of you in non-profit education should be too. The question is the same: how much debt is a college degree worth?

It's a multi-faceted question. I do worry that the next bubble to pop will be the higher education bubble. But I also worry about the kind of nation we'll have if higher education once again becomes out of reach for most people. We can't go back to being agrarians. At this point, there aren't many manufacturing jobs for people who don't go to college.

Perhaps we will look back at this point in the national conversation and realize that we were at a turning point. Hopefully, we will look back and say, "Wow, we were about to enter a period of incredible innovation, but you wouldn't know it from the conversations we were having in the summer of 2010. What a better time we're in now, thanks to those innovations!"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Future of the Big, Social Novel

Can novels still do for society what Dickens' novels did for his? Can they entertain, while still educating us about the state of our society? Can they paint a huge canvas, while still presenting us with characters we care about?

Today is the birthday of Jonathan Franzen, one of the authors currently writing who has most come to be associated with that question. In many essays and interviews since the publication of his massive book, The Corrections, he talks about his belief in the big, social novel, and his abandoning of his plan to write one, a process which led to The Corrections. Of course, some people will argue that The Corrections was just that big, social novel.

His next novel, Freedom, will be released momentarily, and I look forward to reading it. I loved The Corrections, more so the first read than the second read. I felt like I knew those characters, from the older mother who always denied herself so many things and was thus resentful (I most remember her rejecting a piece of fruit tart as much too big a slice) to the adult children who are trying to figure out how to make sense of their lives. The portrait of the patriarch losing his mind was particularly terrifying as I watched all these characters trying to figure out what to do. I would argue that the eldercare/medical drama aspect of the book comes closest to big, social novel status.

The larger question for me is whether or not any of us--or more optimistically, how many of us--will continue to have the patience for these big, sprawling novels. Even novels that are fairly accessible (small casts of characters with a less complicated plot) are a tough slog during the work week, especially if it's a doorstop of a novel. And if I say that, and I'm a speedy reader, imagine the difficulty for others.

Could we write a social novel that wasn't vast? Could I do what Dickens did, but in 250 pages? I'm sure that the economics of the book world means that plenty of authors are doing so, but I can't come up with a list just yet. Any suggestions?

I like a book with some degree of larger, global meaning, but I have trouble with a novel that goes above 500 pages in simple terms of finishing it. Will paper publishing mean that shorter social novels are our future? Or will electronic publishing mean that writers feel less restraint?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Praise of Serious Reading

The Style section of The Washington Post has a fascinating series of articles today which look at how certain books have influenced artists--and what a wide variety of artists! Sculptors and rappers, influenced by books. You'd expect other writers to be influenced by books, but I'm always delighted, and a little surprised, to realize that other types of artists are influenced by books too.

Nestled in between these articles is one by the Post's art critic, Blake Gopnik, who praises serious reading. He recounts an experience of being sick for two weeks last winter and taking medication that left him sleepless but sharp-witted. He settled in with some serious books, the kind that we almost never read once we leave college.

Here's the passage that almost moved me to tears: "We all lead such insanely busy lives, and do so much multitasking, that there's no way we can take in really complex or important new thoughts. Most of us are stuck with whatever big ideas we studied in college. Even in the fields we make a living in, we're more likely to rely on what we learned at school, or pick up pell-mell on the job, than on new reading in depth. How many lawyers with cases to argue and clients to bill can catch up with the latest big ideas on law, or with the big ideas of Plato or Aquinas that they missed out on years ago?"

I've been feeling that my lack of ability to concentrate long enough to read serious books was some sort of moral failing on my part. This idea that maybe it's normal (not good, not ideal, mind you, just normal) made me feel such relief. The idea that it's not just me who has trouble finding chunks of time necessary to tackle tougher books made me feel so much better about myself. For just one minute, my inner guidance counselor, the one who always tells me that I'm not living up to my full potential, for just one minute, that voice shut up.

Gopnik advocates taking serious books along on vacation, but I want some other way. I wonder if I could carve out an hour for serious reading several mornings a week. If I could read before I turned on the computer and got sucked into the time suck which is most areas of the Internet, what might I accomplish?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

In Praise of Jodi Picoult

I spent much of the night reading Jodi Picoult's latest novel, House Rules. I chose it after slogging through Blackout, a sci-fi novel by Connie Willis, where I could tell that she had done a lot of research because she seemed determined to use every single scrap of what she'd learned. I had trouble telling some of the characters apart. But the final blow came when I happened to see on the last page that I was actually reading only the first 500 pages of the story. The sequel would come in the fall. I was only halfway through, but I just couldn't take any more. I quit.

I wanted something compelling to read, something that was less of a chore. I knew that Jodi Picoult's new novel sounded interesting, with its exploration of Asperger's Syndrome. I knew that I wouldn't have trouble telling the characters apart. I knew that she knows how to spin a compelling plot.

Some people sniff at her writing, turn up their noses, the same way they dismiss Stephen King. And granted, with writers who churn out so much writing during the course of a writing life, it's easier to find fault. But I've never read a Jodi Picoult book that didn't just grab me early on. Like King, she's got a great way with characterization and character voice. If she often wanders through the same plot, she makes it different enough so that I don't always notice--just as Stephen King usually does.

I've had students in the past who apologized for liking Stephen King or Danielle Steel, who celebrates a birthday today. I've always been happy to see students reading anything. But more than that, it's impossible to tell who will be canonized in the future. If we could travel back to pre-Civil War Baltimore, citizens would be amazed to know how important Edgar Allan Poe turns out to be in the American canon. If we could travel into the future, we might be amazed at how many authors whom we dismiss as hack genre writers make their way into the canon, if indeed, future readers and scholars even think in terms of canon anymore.

There will always be snarky people who want to tell us that popular writers are not worthy of paper and ink. There will always be snarky people who tell us that critically acclaimed authors aren't all they're hyped up to be (go here for the latest, but be warned, it's VERY mean-spirited).

Me, I'm grateful for any writer that makes me want to read, whatever the motivation. I'm with January, who proposes that we should make lists of underrated poets who deserve more readers. Just as I would advise us all to just keep writing, so would I implore us all to just keep reading.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Just Keep Writing!

Fifteen years ago, we moved my spouse to an apartment in Columbia, South Carolina because he was about to start an MPA program at the University of South Carolina. I spent the week working at my full-time teaching job in the Charleston area, and most week-ends, I drove to Columbia.

I think of this time period as a turning point, and it was, in so many ways. But for the purposes of this post, I'll focus on the writing turning point. It was during the last part of 1995 that I started writing poetry again.

I had written poetry in high school and undergraduate school, and I was starting to come into my own as a poet. Then I went to grad school in 1987, and my poet self went underground. All my writing selves went underground: I didn't journal much, I didn't write short stories or poems. Of course, I wrote at least 3 researched papers every semester, but that didn't feel like real writing to me.

During my first year of teaching full-time, I focused my writing attention on writing a novel. I had visions of writing my way out of that job. In some ways, I did, but not in the ways I envisioned. I envisioned a best seller, a movie tie in, those kind of fantasies.

When my spouse went back to school in 1995, we spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about our future. That's one of the things I love best about being in school: it's clear that a change will be coming, and the progress through school keeps the mind focused.

I look back and I realize that I've never stopped writing, but there have been periods when I haven't been doing the kind of writing that matters most to me. That's one of the reasons I didn't pursue a job at a research oriented university. I didn't want to publish or perish, at least not with my academic writing. I wanted to be a poet.

My 1995 self would be amazed at the trajectory I've taken, amazed at the amount of poetry I've written. My 2010 self feels frustrated at not having published a book of poems that has a spine. But it's important to stop listening to my hypercritical voice, that voice of the inner guidance counselor who tells me I'm not living up to my full potential.

It's important to realize that I've never stopped writing, even as my writing priorities kept shifting. At the same time, I want to be aware of the times when my poet self went underground. I don't want to lose her again.

My poet self went underground in grad school because I was surrounded by older professors, one of whom memorably said of every female writer he mentioned, "Of course, she was no good." Even as my feminist self recognized this sexism, my poet self felt nicked. In grad school, I was surrounded by lots of male creative writers who made themselves feel good by attacking the work of others, both fellow students, canonized writers, marginalized writers. I knew I had to protect my creative writer self, but I didn't mean for her to hibernate for so long.

I also felt inadequate in grad school. I was just one of folks there who had displayed some undergraduate talent. How did I know I could make it? The fact is, I didn't know for sure, and I developed habits that have served me well: breaking large projects into manageable chunks, working a little bit each day, doggedly never giving up.

I think that quality of persistence--not talent--is what makes graduate students successful. It's also what makes writers successful. I'm not sure I really believe in talent at all. I just believe in showing up, day after day, adjusting the trajectory as needed, so that year after year, one is moving towards the life one wants to have.

Hopefully, in 15 years, I'll be writing about the 2 or 3 poetry books and/or chapbooks that I've found publisher homes for. Hopefully, I'll be writing about the experience in the future version of the linked-in, facebooked blogosphere, announcing a new book, a poetry tour, and multi-media show, a medium we can't even imagine now, a new social justice initiative that combines my love of poetry and my vision of a better world . . .

But now, it's time to face my day of many meetings. First, to spin class!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writer's Hot Tub Time Machine

Before we joined Netflix, we watched predictable T.V. shows. Now we watch predictable movies--but at least we have no commercials, and we have a different bunch of actors. Some days, I almost prefer the predictable, especially when I'm just vegging out. The other night we watched Hot Tub Time Machine, which spoke to me in ways I didn't expect.

I have loved John Cusack for many years now, so it's always a treat to see him in a movie. I especially like to see him in movies where he's dealing with midlife issues, as opposed to seeing him in an older movie, which takes me back to adolescent angst, which happily, I don't suffer from often anymore. Hot Tub Time Machine dealt with some midlife issues in surprising ways, or at least surprising for a movie that marketed itself the way that it did.

I was intrigued by the regrets that the characters had, the regrets about people who were left behind on the way to midlife, regrets about the career choices made, regrets about past and present behavior.

I started thinking about my own regrets. I don't live in the same town as I did when I was in high school, so my plot line would be different from that of those characters. I've left people behind when I went to school, when I moved to Florida--but happily e-mail, and more lately Facebook, has made it easier to stay in touch. I have some regrets about career paths not taken, but overall, I'm happy. And plus, I'm not convinced that those career paths were ever as open to me as I once believed--larger societal forces were at work. I seem to have the talent for graduating during times of economic distress.

I do have some writerly regrets, which I was reminded of as I read Kelli's latest post about the different writerly submission processes demonstrated by males and females. She says:

"If an editor of our press rejects work from a male writer, but writes something like, 'This came close. We'd like to see more of your work in the future, please resubmit' - we will usually receive another submission from the male writer within a month (though sometimes two) after he receives his rejection.

When we send this same note to a woman writer, she will resubmit maybe in 3-6 months (if that) but more likely it will be later than 6 months and sometimes a year (or the next submission season later). Sometimes she will not resubmit at all."

I notice this pattern in myself. Kelli speculates as to why women exhibit this behavior: "When we ask a woman to resubmit she thinks, 'When would be the best time to resubmit? I don't want to seem pushy, but I do want to get them my work. Maybe I should wait a few months so I don't seem desperate or so I don't irritate them by submitting so fast. Do they really want to see more work, or were they just being nice? I'm sure they want to see more work, but I should probably wait a couple months, I wouldn't want to be an imposition and it would be better manners and more respectful to wait a bit. Or should I? Yes, I'll play it cool and wait a few months. I wouldn't want to impose.'"

Yes, a familiar thought pattern indeed. Some years, I've been better at promoting my work than others. Some years I've been more on track with my submission process than others. Most years, I'm pleased with what I actually get written, but there are other years or half years that were just lost.

When I watched Who Does She Think She Is?, I was struck by the amount of work those visual artists have produced. In some ways, I'm grateful that paper takes up less room (although I have almost a closet's worth of work, since graduate school trained me to keep all my rough drafts--with rough drafts, I might have 2 closets' worth). In other ways, though, it becomes hard to remember how much I have actually written.

No matter how much I write, though, I'm always battling with my feeling that it's not enough. I always remember the novels, short stories, and poems that didn't get written. Perhaps they will get written--I'm not dead yet. But each year brings more ideas than I'll live long enough to write. So these regrets will always be with me.

If I could go back in time but retain the knowledge that I have now, would I really act differently? Maybe in some ways, but they're small. I don't regret any of the people I have known. I don't regret the degrees that I've earned in school. I don't look at career roads not taken and wish I had gone down this road or that road. I do regret that I've had to wrestle with balancing my creative career with my teaching career. I haven't been in jobs where I could go on a multi-month, multi-city book tour without losing my job--so I haven't always aggressive in following through with getting my novels published, since I couldn't go out and promote them, should I be lucky enough to find an agent and a publisher. What would break my heart more than having unpublished novels in my drawer would be to have a published novel that dies a quick death because of my job constraints.

But I don't spend much time on those regrets. The last 10 years have showed me that technology is likely to open up all sorts of possibilities for my writing than I can even conceive of now. The last 15 years have showed me that the important thing is to keep writing. More on that in my next post.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Return to Dough

August seems to be bread month around these parts. It seems that everyone I know is experimenting with bread baking; I much prefer this situation to the summers where everyone is avoiding carbs, although they can't tell you what a carb is or why they're steering clear.

On Sunday, I made my first loaves with my new sourdough starter--delish! My spouse and I ate almost all the bread hot out of the oven. I don't regret it one bit. Bread, cheese, and wine--what could be a better Sunday supper than that?

We had a rainy day yesterday, and I didn't have to be to the office until late morning--not enough time for yeasted bread, but plenty of time for scones. Again, I ate far more in one sitting than I should have--but bread never tastes better than when it's fresh out of the oven, so I have no regrets.

I often return to bread baking in an effort to remind myself of who I am at my essential core. It's nice to have that practice. Years ago, I wrote this poem, as I thought about those high school years when I made the most bread, from 1979-1983. It was published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review.

Demands of Dough

Each decade ushers in a new genocide;
each bloody crime introduces histories
of humans I’ve never heard of before. Each
year’s newscast schools me in ways to slaughter
masses of humans efficiently, human rights
violated in ways I never would have imagined. Yet,
the familiarity persists as well. Auschwitz,
Cambodia, Rwanda: an ongoing, constant
story of corpses stacked like cordwood, rivers choked
with bodies, a consistent backdrop
to the bloodiest century on record.

I turn off the news and declare a news fast.
I pull out my old recipe books to revisit
an earlier self, the vegetarian pacifist with a quick
temper, the girl who marched on Washington
to protest Apartheid and arms races and abortion
rights backsliding. I pull yeast and flour
out of my cupboard and knead myself younger.

My first loaf of homemade bread. What possessed
my mother to suggest it? Vegetarian seminarians
coming for dinner and a long, summer afternoon
to fill. What kept me baking? Praise.
An excuse to play with dough. Desire
for more nutritious food. By age seventeen, I’m the only
high school senior with her own garden.

I can think short term. I may not live
to see my twenties, especially if our president
continues to joke about bombing the Soviet Union.
But I’m able to invest the space and time
a rising bread dough demands.
I’m willing to commit to a germinating seed,
willing to hope for one more season of growth.

That was before cable brought us multiple news
channels. Somehow the abstraction of a cold
war and an arms race disturbed me less
than these scenes of neighbors butchering
each other. I cannot process misery at this scale.
I return to what I can handle:
yeast and a pinch of sugar, oats and flour,
a window sill of seedlings,
an afternoon of tea and books.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Super Tuesday?

Are you voting today? Our elections are next week, and I'll be at the polls voting for school board members and judges. I'm a registered independent, which means I don't get to have any fun in the primaries.

I remember in the 1980's, when I lived in South Carolina, anyone could vote in the primaries. That might have changed, since organized people could often perform mischief. I remember voting for Republican candidates who were just goofy, in the hopes that the Republicans would be stuck with a candidate who had no hope of winning.

It's a charming naivete in retrospect, isn't it? This idea that me, one little voter could change the course of an election.

For many people, Barack Obama was the first black person they voted for. Not me. I voted for Jesse Jackson in 1988, and I wasn't the only South Carolina voter to do so. He made a surprisingly good showing in that state, and his campaign got a boost. Southern states realized that they could affect national elections in this way, and the idea of Super Tuesday was born (today is not Super Tuesday, let me point out).

I remember feeling thrilled to be voting for Jackson, even though I've come to be less thrilled with him through the years. I loved the idea of a Rainbow Coalition. I wanted a candidate who would take the side of the poor and the oppressed. I still do.

Last night, as I listened to messages on my answering machine, I came to one message that it took me awhile to decipher. At first I thought it was a wrong number. It sounded like a hysterical woman. I wasn't sure she was even speaking in English. But soon, I got used to the lilt of her island accent, and I realized that she was calling me to implore me to vote. She had an enthusiasm and an urgency that was lacking when I got the robocall from Hillary Clinton's campaign.

What a great country! Even though it does take a chunk of money to run a national campaign, it's still fairly easy to run for the local school board or the city commission or even a state office, in some states. For those of us who dream of making a difference that way, we still could.

Election season is upon us, and it's important to remember our civic duties, which includes voting. I might even argue that it's our civic duty to try to change the system if we don't like said system. I would argue that it's our civic duty to have faith in our governmental structures, even if we don't like their current incarnation.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Long National Nightmares

On this day, in 1974, Richard Nixon resigned. It's my earliest political memory. I would have just turned 9. My family was vacationing with several other families at Myrtle Beach (South Carolina), back when you rented a big beach house that didn't have electronics. I remember the grown-ups going down to the cars periodically to listen to the car radios.

I remember saying to one of the non-parent grown-ups, "Did you hear the bad news? Nixon resigned!" I couldn't imagine a president resigning. Grown-ups just didn't behave that way. The 1970's would be full of those kind of unpleasant surprises for me, grown-ups behaving in all kinds of ugly ways. I was luckier than most of my friends, in that I had a stable home with two parents who managed to continue loving each other.

I wonder what our elementary school children will remember from our own time period. It's a dark time economically--yet we've had those before. I remember a time when beef was close to unaffordable, and soon after that, chicken too. I remember gas lines. Happily, those times didn't stretch into a lifetime. I wonder and worry about our current jobless rate.

I'm not the only one. Paul Krugman has a terrifying essay in The New York Times today. And yet, I remain optimistic. I remember too many times in the past where I've thought, yep, this is it, we're an empire in decline. For example, I remember seeing Apollo 13 and feeling sad about being a nation in such dire straits. And yet, we were just at the beginning of a national expansion.

That expansion has come to a crashing halt. We are in the midst of a long, national nightmare of economic gloom. I'm ready for a sunny Gerald Ford type to tell us that it's over--some follow-through would be nice too.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Who Do We Think We Are?

Yesterday was one of the days that I treasure as an administrator. Well, parts of yesterday.

The parts I didn't treasure: the meeting to find out how much we missed our enrollment numbers and the dealing with a student flare-up in class (not my class, but because I'm the department chair, I was pulled in, and rightly so).

In between those book-ends to my day, we had an event that I'd been helping to plan for weeks. There's a show in the gallery at my school. The three artists look at being a mother and being an artist. So, yesterday, we offered a Lunch and Learn hour with the artists, and then we screened the film, Who Does She Think She Is? This film looks at 5 women artists who are also mothers, as well as the larger issue of women in the arts.

I first heard about this film over at Kelli's blog (here and here) way back in June. So imagine my surprise at the serendipity of the universe when I found out that one of the artists in the show has public viewing rights in the state of Florida and wanted to screen the movie here.

It was a fabulous afternoon. We had great conversations both before and after the movie. The movie also was compelling. I just felt thrilled to be part of the team that pulled it all together.

As I walked to the car, I wondered, not for the first time, if there's a job out there where I would just put together cool events and lose the rest of the administrator stuff. I suspect that if that job exists, it would still have some elements that would be less compelling.

In fact, I imagine that events coordinator kind of jobs have been merged with grants writer jobs, and I'd spend a lot of time wondering why I had to spend so much time writing grants. At least at a school, the budget has been set.

I say that, and then I think about the meeting earlier in the day--with dismal numbers, the budget could change. But happily, the kind of events that I put on don't need much budget.

I'm lucky that I can plan these kind of events that feed my soul. I'm lucky that in the space of 8 days, I've gone to 2 art shows that make me want to get back to my easel/construction table. If sitting through meetings about budget numbers is the price for that luck, so be it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing by Hand

Yesterday, my spouse left for work early, and I had about an hour and a half before I had to go to work. I had Kelli's recent post on the brain, where she says that if she finds herself with time and an empty house, she will not do housework, but instead, she will write. I burned to write. The night before, I had made more notes about short stories that I want to write in my linked short story cycle.

There was just one problem. My spouse took the laptop with him, and our crippled desktop has been with the IT guy.

I decided to try an experiment. I pulled out a legal pad and wrote the way I used to do, with my hand clutching a pen.

At first, it felt strange. I kept thinking about how much faster I could be writing if I had a computer.

And then, the magic happened (it also happens at the keyboard, but it doesn't always happen any place): I lost myself in what I was writing. My brain danced; my fingers flew.

When I had to go to work, I felt like I had been in a trance. At one point, I thought, I shouldn't be driving. Some word-drunk part of my brain was still back in my living room with my short story.

I haven't written a short story since 2003. I've written plenty of other things, but not short fiction. I haven't written any new fiction since 2005. I've never forgotten how wonderful it feels to create a new world, but for a variety of reasons, I've been working on other projects. And I still get a similar high each time I write a poem that takes me in unexpected directions.

I haven't written by hand since 1987. I take notes by hand, and I keep a journal by writing by hand (although lately, most of my journaling has been blogging). I had forgotten what that feels like. For about an hour after I was done, my right hand and wrist ached.

I don't have a tiny enough laptop that I can use in any setting. I've wondered about whether or not I'd do more writing if I moved away from thinking that I need a computer to do it. Would I write in front of the television, the way I did as a teenager? Would I write in waiting rooms? Could I write during boring meetings?

I had a friend in grad school who worked on his fiction during boring classes. He filled long legal pads. I always worried about what I'd miss if I did that, while at the same time, I envied him his ability to tune out.

Now that I have several new short stories that I want to write, maybe I'll start carrying a legal pad around with me.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Hope Is One of Our Duties"

Today is Wendell Berry's birthday. I've admired Wendell Berry for many years, even as I've only read his work in bits and pieces. I like his poems, love most of his essays, and haven't read his novels. I admire his commitment to his farm in Kentucky, a commitment which has led to quiet environmental activism; I expect that future generations of scholars will realize that he's written some of the most important environmental writing of the last part of the twentieth century.

He's also a Christian, and some of his works are deeply influenced by that tradition. I think he's successful in walking that tightrope between thoughtful writing and polemic. Of course, as a lifelong Lutheran, I might not see aspects of his writing which might offend non-believers.

Here's an example of that kind of writing: "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation" from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, page 103). That passage made me gasp when I first read it, and it still does.

I love his writings on community. His work seems even more vital, as every day we discover how much we're damaging the planet. Yet he never sinks into gloom. He manages to sound prophetic (one of the prophet's duties being to call people back to right living, as well as to warn), without staying in the land of the apocalypse too long. He always comes back to one of his main themes: ". . . hope is one of our duties. A part of our obligation to our own being and to our descendants is to study our life and our condition, searching always for the authentic underpinnings of hope. And if we look, these underpinnings can still be found. For one thing, thought we have caused the earth to be seriously diseased, it is not yet without health. The earth we have before us now is still abounding and beautiful" ("Conservation and Local Economy" from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, page 11).

He wrote those words almost 20 years ago, and yet, they still have relevance. In a week where we finally have good news about the oil spill in the Gulf, it's good to hope again.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Guns of August: My Slow Reading Progress

I continue to find myself intrigued with Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I convinced my book club to choose it for our next book, and I've loaned it out. I can hardly wait to get it back. It's what I want to be reading, even though the book I'm reading is fascinating enough. Except that it's not fascinating enough for me to want to read it during every moment of my spare time. I like the premise more than the actual book.

I'm reading Blackout, by Connie Willis, about a group of future people who travel back in time to England during World War II. They're experiencing slippage; they've traveled back to times and locations where they're not supposed to have been able to be. They might affect the future! I keep reading, but more out of mild curiosity than suspense. I wonder how Willis will work this out.

I keep wondering why I'm not compelled. Is it because it's too long, and I don't have time to return to it as regularly as I need to in order to hold my interest? That's part of it, I guess. But what I suspect is the problem is that the cast of characters is too big, the historical background too broad. It feels like Willis did a lot of research and is determined to work in every bit. I skim a lot, and I'm still not making progress. I suspect that's what WWII felt like. We make progress, but we're no closer to the end.

On a New York Times blog site post, Jennifer Egan answers questions about her sense of time and her writing process. She writes on legal pads. She says she never writes or edits on a screen. Intriguing to me. I still write my first drafts of poems on lavender legal pads, but for prose, I compose on a computer. Whatever revising of prose I do, it's on a computer. My revision process, however, most depends on me being able to read my work out loud. It's where I hear the rhythm of the words and catch unwanted repetition.

Jennifer Egan has written other books, only one of which I've read. Perhaps once I slog through World War II, I'll return to Egan.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Just 12 Books

The New York Times is full of inspiration this morning. I enjoyed this essay by David Brooks, who looks at the different ways we live our lives. He posits that some of us lead Well-Planned Lives, a life modeled by Clayton Christensen, who spent an hour every night of his time as a Rhodes Scholar thinking, reading, and praying about his purpose on the planet. Brooks then goes on to talk about the Summoned Life, which says that life is essentially a mystery, that we can't possibly plan in the way that Christensen did.

Then I went to this story, which talks about the results of a student summer reading experiment. One group of low-income children got to choose 12 books, any books they wanted, at a book fair shortly before the end of the school year. Another group received activity and puzzle books. At the end of 3 summers, the students who chose the 12 books had significantly higher reading scores.

One of the secrets of success? The students chose the books, which meant they would actually read them. Some of us have already suspected the implications of this study. Reading, any reading, is better than no reading.

The successful students weren't reading classics. The most popular book was a biography of Britney Spears, not a choice that most parents or teachers would choose for the children.

The story also mentions the cost of this program: $50 per student. Lots of bang for the buck there. It's a much cheaper program than summer school would be for the children, and the benefits were similar.

I've always fantasized about winning the lottery and all the social justice programs that I could fund with my winnings. I've always dreamed of funding feminist projects.

But maybe I don't need to win the lottery. Maybe I should create some kind of foundation to fund these kind of programs.

I wonder if there's something similarly inexpensive that we could all be doing as poets. I think children have a natural delight in the kinds of things we often see in poetry: fanciful use of language, intriguing imagery, rhythm, meter, rhyme, word play. Why and when do children lose that? How can we as grown up poets work to make sure the loss doesn't happen?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Apocalyptic Film Week Comes to an End

I didn't plan last week as apocalyptic film week. On Sunday, I chose the movie 2012 because we could stream it from Netflix, and I had heard of it, and the choice was so overwhelming that I just wanted to be done with it.

We joined Netflix because my spouse had become almost desperate to see The Book of Eli, which became first in our queue. It arrived midweek, and we watched it immediately. I enjoyed it immensely, with its apocalyptic landscape and unexpected spiritual themes, which I thought the movie handled well; I talk about it here on my theological blog.

On Saturday, we watched The Road, which I found to be the most emotionally affecting of the three movies of apocalyptic film week. I didn't expect it to be such a tearjerker. In fact, when I first heard they were filming the book, I couldn't imagine how that long trudge would be interesting on film. In some ways, I wouldn't have found it an interesting read, except for Cormac McCarthy's gorgeous prose.

But there I was at the end of the film, weeping. Part of it was that childhood fear that my parents would die, leaving us all alone. Part of it was that the actor who played the boy reminded me of my nephew. Part of it was that fear that never leaves me, that fear that will of course become truth: everything we love will be lost.

But let it be the more mundane losses. Much as I love apocalyptic movies, I wouldn't want to wake up to find myself in one of those plotlines. The losses that we'll all experience will be bad enough, thank you. No need to add in the destruction of the planet. Let me go on believing that the planet will heal itself--although that's becoming harder to believe with each year of increasingly bad news. This week, as we watched apocalyptic movies, we also got the report about the decline of phytoplankton in the sea (go here and here for more).

I wonder if you could make an apocalyptic movie that would educate people about the state of the world's oceans and radicalize them, the way that the nuclear war movies of the 1980's did. Or is one of the problems with apocalyptic movies the scale of them? It's hard to believe that humans can do much, after we watch 2 hours of destruction on a movie size scale. Can we have an apocalyptic movie that also spurs people to hope and action? Hmmmm . . .

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Remembering Herman, the Sourdough Starter, and Melville

Today is Herman Melville's birthday. It's also the birthday of MTV, born in 1981 and Jerry Garcia. I feel there should be a poem in there somewhere, but I'm not sure what it is right now.

I never finished Moby Dick. We were supposed to have read it in high school, but I think only one person in our English class did. One of the punk guys declared it the best book he ever read. Yes, we had intellectual punks in our high school, and the most popular kids were the born again group who burned, literally, their record albums on Saturday nights. What can I tell you? Knoxville, Tennessee in the early 1980's was a very strange place.

Over at her blog, Leslie Pietrzyk has been reading Moby Dick this summer. It's almost enough to make me want to pick up the book again. Almost.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" will always be my favorite Melville work. At times I've felt like Bartleby. Lately I feel more like the narrator in that story, as I'm remembering that story. The narrator has to manage all these workers with very different work styles. He wonders why they can't just get the work done. Yes, that dynamic feels familiar.

I have a different Herman on the brain this week-end. On Friday, my friend gave me a bit of levain, a fancy name for sourdough starter. My friend has been experimenting with bread baking this summer, a voyage sparked by William Alexander's 52 Loaves. Alexander is a bit too scientific for my taste, with his weighing all the ingredients.

In a show of defiance, I measured nothing! I put the starter in my grandmother's mixing bowl, dumped in some flour, and stirred in some water. I've let it sit on the counter and stirred it periodically. I figure if California pioneers could make this work, so can I. I'm sure that no one went into the covered wagon to find the kitchen scale to feed the starter.

Years and years ago, I made bread much more regularly. In high school, I launched my own rebellion by becoming a vegetarian and baking my own bread. Some kids rebel by burning their record albums, some by doing weird things to their hair, some by experimenting with drugs, . . .
but not me. I experimented with whole grain flours and bread recipes.

It was a different world then, a world devoid of artisan breads. When we travelled as a family to big cities (like D.C.), the bakeries were a revelation (and they were separate, not part of grocery stores).

I loved sourdough bread, so when Southern Living magazine offered a recipe for starter and some bread recipes, I had to try it. The magazine called the starter Herman, and I did too. I kept that starter going until I left for college. I had hopes that my mom would care for it, but the family moved shortly after I started college, and Herman got tossed in the move.

Until recently, I couldn't find any sort of Herman recipe online, but this morning, I found a few. This one seems like the most similar to the one I made, long ago in the early 80's.

I love sourdough starter because it's fairly forgiving. I want to bake more often, but I know I may not be able to. The starter will wait for me.

And hopefully, it will encourage me to bake more. In some ways, it should be doable. I'm not spending much more time in my office than I was spending at high school. And in high school, I found time to bake. Let me hope that I can do it now.