Thursday, September 30, 2010

Of Hurricanes and Holocaust Literature and Health Care

Today South Florida breathes a sigh of relief as Nicole swirls northward and leaves us relatively unscathed. We got rain, but it was a steady rain, for the most part, which is easier for our landscape to handle than the torrential bursts that these systems often deliver. We've had more flooding during some of our fiercer thunderstorms. We had no wind, which was a mercy. Sometimes, with a constant rain over a multi-hour period, it doesn't take much wind speed at all to topple the trees.

I fear our neighbors in North Carolina will not be so lucky. They've had days of rain preceding this system, and the system is picking up more rain to deliver, since it stayed mainly over water (good for us, bad for the Bahamas and points north).

Today is the birthday of Elie Wiesel, perhaps one of our most well-known Holocaust writers. I suspect that we've gotten to the critical mass point, where more students have read Wiesel's Night than Anne Frank's diary, which during my childhood was often the first piece of Holocaust literature that children read.

When I read Holocaust literature, I feel similar feelings as I do when I watch a really big hurricane miss my shores as it wipes out someone else's coast. I feel this sense of the relief, the near miss. I feel this guilt, since other people are suffering when I am not. I feel this sense of dread, with my knowledge of the capriciousness of luck and fate. Human history teaches us that humans will butcher each other if given half a chance to get away with it. The history of natural disasters teaches us that we're at the mercy of planetary laws of chemistry, physics, and biology, laws that most of us scarcely understand.

Last night, as the rain poured on, I finished Lionel Shriver's latest book So Much for That. It explores disease and health care and all the ways our physical bodies can fail us. At times, I almost felt sick reading it (there's a character who undergoes a botched penis enlargement surgery--blhhhhhh). And there's the fear that made it almost impossible to keep reading at times. I'm lucky enough to work in a job that has health insurance, and I assume it's good health insurance. Most of us who have health insurance assume we have a good policy--until we get sick and discover the limits of it.

I tell myself that I'm healthy and therefore have nothing to worry about. This book reminds us that even healthy people can have dreadful things happen to them--or to the ones who they love. And even if we live long, healthy lives, most of us will age, and aging in industrialized nations brings with it some challenges (how's that for understatement?). The book has an older character who suffers the indignities of a nursing home. One of the main characters deals with the intricacies of elder care while caring for his wife who has a rare form of cancer. Yikes!

Why do we read these books that remind us of all the ways that life can go wrong? Is it the same impulse that takes some of us to see scary movies or ride on roller coasters? Do we like to be scared while at the same time remaining safe?

I read these books to help me maintain my sense of gratitude. So far, my life has been fairly good, even during those years, like 2005, when my family has been dealt blow after blow (2005 was the year of spousal job stress and loss, mother-in-law sickness and death, and several shattering hurricanes). These books give me a point of comparison, a reminder that life could be worse. It's probably the same reason I'm drawn to apocalyptic plot lines. No matter how badly our government goes astray, at least I'm not living in a post-nuclear blast (or post-climate meltdown or . . . insert your favorite disaster here) world.

I used to think I read those books to prepare myself, but now I know that you really can't prepare yourself. We can store up food and water, but storms of all sorts will find weaknesses that we didn't realize we had. If we're lucky, we survive to become stronger. If we're not so lucky, we should hope that we have an Elie Wiesel there who will immortalize the struggle.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Endurance Training for Poets and Others

Yesterday, I was the only person at spin class. It's certainly not because we suddenly have gorgeous weather and everyone wants to be outside. No, our weather has turned tropical again, with temps in the mid 80's even before the sun rises. Happily, the spin instructor conducted class just for me. Very motivating, to be the only student. I don't think I've ever worked out quite that hard for such a sustained period of time.

One of the songs we cycled to was that song from Rocky 3, "Eye of the Tiger." I have a special fondness for that movie and that song. The night before I ran my best 10K of all time, I watched that movie. The next day, I blazed my way through the course of the Pumpkin Run in Knoxville, Tennessee. All during the run, I kept thinking of those scenes from the movie which I only hazily remember now. Rocky is supposed to channel fierceness by thinking about the eye of the tiger? I just remember the trainer saying, "Eye of the tiger, Rocky, eye of the tiger!" I'm here to tell you that it works. My all time best 10K time happened with that motivational mantra in my head.

I'm a slow runner. I can run for hours, but I'll never go very fast. But that day, I zoomed away. And because of my accomplishment that day, I continued training and had some very good showings (for me) in road races throughout the spring: the Expo run, the Avon run, the Dogwood run. Ah, the good old days, when the local YMCA put together these races and a ragtag bunch showed up. Ah, the good old days, when even a national run, like the Avon run, only cost a few bucks in entry fees (our local runs now can cost $50!!)

There's a larger lesson here than just nostalgia. My experience taught me that you can keep plugging away for years thinking you're making no progress, and suddenly, everything will click. It also taught me the value of showing up, day after day.

I'm not a big believer in talent. I've seen plenty of people with talent who never show up to use that talent. Meanwhile, I've seen people of modest ability who blaze a trail because of their habits of endurance.

In my life, I've accomplished a lot that I thought I couldn't do because I could force myself to do a little bit, each and every day. I wrote my dissertation that way. I could face my anxiety for an hour or two every day. And bit by bit, that dissertation grew.

A writing career, any creative career really, is much the same way. We show up each day, often with only our own encouragement in our ears. We must believe in ourselves, even if the larger world doesn't. We lay groundwork for the success which will come, if we keep working. That success may not look like what we imagined or what we hoped for. It might be even better. We can't really know.

I always tell myself that even if I never have another thing published, that creative work is enriching in and of itself. What else would I be doing with my free time? Probably something fairly useless, like watching television. No thanks. I'd rather be logging long training distances with my purple legal pad full of poem ideas.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Jury Duty and Life on Hold

For the next two weeks, I am on call for jury duty for the U.S. District Court. What does this mean? Each night, I must call to see if I am needed. Today, I am not needed.

I have found this situation oddly stressful. The idea of actually being needed doesn't stress me. I'm a Civics geek: I vote in every election, I'm happy to be a juror, I amuse myself and try to stretch my brain by trying to remember all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution. I'm that kind of person.

I don't even mind that most jury duty that I've experienced has involved sitting around much of the day. I travel with books, and being stuck somewhere with no Internet access gives me that rare opportunity to lose myself in a book.

What I mind is not knowing what my day will look like. How much of my work should I try to get done in advance? I've taken no chances and gotten all the essential stuff done in advance. Of course, if I do have to serve, I'll probably realize how much I've overlooked. This week is a down time between quarters, and I hoped to get caught up with some things like endless copying and filing. My office has piles of paperwork that need to get put away. I can see the look in people's eyes when they come to my door; it's a look that says, "What has happened here?"

Still, today feels like a gift. I'll think about my publishing goals. What needs to be done before September ends? I'll make sure to get some manuscripts in the mail. I'm falling behind in that goal.

Last week, when I realized I might have jury duty, I said to myself, "I better get to the library so that I have something to read." I've done that; I was lucky to find some great novels (I'm currently reading Lionel Shriver's So Much for That, a terrifying look at U.S. health care). At the office today, I'll pick up some of those volumes of poetry in my to-read stack so that I can have poetry to read, should I be called to serve as juror. I've got a few bits of paperwork left to take care of (syllabus, new hire stuff), and then I'll be ready, should I be called to serve tomorrow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bookmarks That Really Are Not

Yesterday, I had a bizarre reading experience. I picked up the book I'd been reading, Scott Spencer's Man in the Woods. Although I'm enjoying it thoroughly, I'm not sure I agree with Patrick Anderson's review, in which he states, "'Man in the Woods' is one of the three best novels I've read this year -- the others are Laura Lippman's 'I'd Know You Anywhere' and Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit From the Goon Squad' -- and if you pressed me, I'd put it at the top of the list." So far, I would give the top honor to the Egan book.

But I digress.

So, I opened the book and read a few pages and felt puzzled. I didn't remember these characters. I read more and discovered references to plot points I didn't remember happening. I kept reading and feeling more confused. Sure, I read quickly, and don't always retain all the details, but for crying out loud! I usually keep track of everything for at least a day or two. I had last read the book just 30 hours ago.

So, I flipped back through the book to try to figure out where I had zoned out, only to discover that the envelope that I thought was a bookmark really wasn't. I saw the turned down page about 100 pages before the chunk of text I was reading. No wonder I was confused. As I left the waiting room where I'd last been reading, I'd shoved a pile of papers, including the envelope into the back of the book.

I was tempted to just keep reading, since I now had some plot knowledge. But I hadn't gotten to what reviewer Patrick Anderson assures us will be the powerful ending, so I dutifully went back to my real stopping place.

As a on-again, off-again novelist, I thought about my experience. What does it say about a novel that I could skip ahead 100 pages and not be completely lost? Is that a positive or a negative? What does it mean that I could piece together enough to be tempted to just keep plowing ahead to the end?

It's a good book, which was the deciding factor in my decision to turn back to my true stopping place. I've been reading some disappointing books lately. Much as I love Barbara Kingsolver, I just couldn't make my way through The Lacuna. And I'm happy that I checked out Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight from the library. What a thin little book. I'd read an article that later became this book in Oprah's magazine years ago, and it fascinated me. Unfortunately, that bit was the best part--although I'd probably find it more useful if I had a loved one recovering from a serious brain injury. My 2010 reading list hasn't been as fulfilling as the 2009 list. But happily, I'm not limited to those books. Happily, the publishing industry still survives and gives me wonderful books to read. Now, if only I could find more quiet moments tucked into the day!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Requiem for the Girl Who Loved the Public Library

I will never complain about paying taxes, because I've been the recipient of so much good from taxpayers in the past: public schools (mine were just fine, and my Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina was solid and cheap), libraries, highways, fire and police forces (which happily, I haven't had to use, but I'm happy to have them there). I even benefited from decades of defense spending, as my dad was in the Air Force and then the Air Force Reserve, until he was old enough to retire; I bought many a record album at the BX and enjoyed all sorts of treats from the Commissary.

Until recently, I used the public library several times a week, not only to support my voracious reading habit, but also to get free movies and music. In graduate school, we even checked out framed pieces of art to hang on the walls for several weeks (thanks, Richland County Library!). I've always had my own computer and Internet access at home, but the computers at our public libraries are always packed, and I've noticed that lots of people bring their laptops to enjoy taxpayer funded wi-fi.

Last night I went to the main branch of the library in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. I was struck by how empty it was. I was there at 5:30, and I'm used to seeing hordes of students, families with their children, homeless people who are grateful for a place to perch for hours. Last night, I walked right up to the counter to check out my books; in past years, the line would have been at least 10 people deep.

I asked the librarian if this emptiness was common now, and she said that it depended on the time and the day. Our libraries have been cutting back hours, as have all our public services, and my apocalyptic side wonders how long it will be before we just shut them down completely.

But what a shame that would be! How many resources we would lose. Our main branch of the library even includes the largest collection of sheet music I've ever seen outside of music stores.

After I got home, my spouse and I sat outside savoring the view of the beautiful full moon and talked about my sorrow at the fact that I don't use the library as much as I once did. My spouse reminded me not to discount the fact that the resources were there should I ever need them again. Now I don't use the library as much because I can afford to buy books, and I don't check out movies because I can stream them from online sources. But I can do those things because I've reached a level of affluence. Not everyone is as fortunate.

I think that society depends on people like me to continue to pay for these resources for those folks who are less fortunate, and I'm happy to do so. I worry about where we're headed though. We've seen several generations of the rising affluent pulling their children out of public schools, and several generations of taxpayers who don't want to fund those schools. What a disaster.

We live in a difficult time, a time when municipalities must figure out how to cope with less money. We may have difficult choices to make. I'm praying and hoping for people who have visions of new ways to do things. After all, the public library system that I love so much was once a quirky and unique novelty born of people who refused to be constrained by hard circumstances.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nothing Focuses the Mind Like a Call for Submissions

On Jeannine Hall Gailey's blog, she announces that Steel Toe Books has announced an open reading period, and they're looking for manuscripts with a spiritual theme.

And I have a book length manuscript that has a spiritual theme. I had planned to revise that manuscript (because I have since written some poems that might be better than some of the poems that I included) during my November trip to Mepkin Abbey (where in November 2009, I first assembled the manuscript), but since end of the reading period at Steel Toe Books is Oct. 31, I shall step that process up a bit.

I have always written a variety of poems, but I've always felt the most fretful about my poems that have a religious theme. When I write a work related poem, I don't worry about all the people who might be turned off. When I write a poem that's a riff on a fairy tale or a myth, I know that some people might wrinkle their noses in distaste, but I also know there's a centuries long, rich tradition of people writing just that kind of poetry.

But a poem with a religious theme risks so much. There are traditionalists who might get offended at the notion of Jesus moving around in our modern world, doing things like bowling or going to spin class or helping clean up after a hurricane or playing softball or cleaning a toilet. There are non-religious folks who won't even give religious poems a chance. There are plenty of people, religious and not, who won't understand the allusions.

I've always been amazed when people like my religious poems best. When I first started writing them, I didn't send them out for years. They felt strange and subversive to me, and I imagined hate mail from more literal minded believers. But then I realized that most of the poetry I loved best had a strange and subversive streak. I love poems that crack my brain wide open and offer me a completely new way of seeing thee world.

So, I sent them out, and they've been the ones that generate the most fan mail, the ones that people tell me they love best. Hmm.

Now, here's an interesting question. I'm almost sure that I sent this manuscript to Steel Toe Books for their last reading period, which was an open reading period, probably 9 months ago. My poetry submission notebook is at the office, so I'll doublecheck later. Am I stupid to send it again? Will the Steel Toe folks even remember that they've seen it before? How much would I have to change, before it's not what they would remember seeing before?

What I love about their process is that they don't charge a reading fee or have a contest, but they do require everyone who submits to buy a book. I'm happy to support a press that way.

So, you know how I'll be spending my October: looking at all the poems that aren't typed into the computer yet, looking at my manuscript, revising . . . and praying for the wisdom and vision and hope that this process requires.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ramen Noodle Years--Hard Times Come Again No More

Lots of news stories about this lingering recession, which some economists have claimed as being over. A Washington Post story features regular people who don't believe it. One woman is quoted as saying, "'My husband and I thought we were beyond the hot dog and beans of our lives. . . . Is this my new reality?'"

My first thought was, you can afford hot dogs to go with your beans? You aren't truly poor until you eat ramen for days and days in a row.

I hadn't recently thought of ramen noodles until I was at a friend's house a few weeks ago and watched her daughter make ramen noodles as she proclaimed her love of them. I gave an overly dramatic shudder and then had to explain why.

There was a summer in graduate school where my husband and I didn't have much money. Our graduate stipends only lasted 9 months, and although we had some adjunct work and part time work, we had to be VERY careful. We didn't use air conditioning during a hot, hot, hot South Carolina summer--as a result, I no longer fear Hell, at least not because of temperature reasons. We watched our grocery bill: no meat, no soda, no convenience food. I discovered the cheapness of ramen noodles and stocked up. After a summer of ramen noodles, it's hard to ever want them again.

One thing that made our poverty summers not so bad was that all our friends, also in grad school, shared those impoverished times. We checked out videos from the library and lounged by swimming pools--free entertainment. We shared potluck dinners. We got jobs as ushers at the Koger Center, a posh performing arts place--a bit of pocket money, plus we got to see the show. Even though we were poor, I remember those years fondly.

I think that having survived some impoverished times has inoculated me against some of the fears that infect other people. I know how to cook very tasty and cheap vegetarian food. We still drive old, economical cars. We haven't accumulated debt, because our lives and the lives of our parents (and grandparents, who survived the Great Depression) have taught us that hard times might come again.

I was shocked to read this story about a woman who lost her job that paid her $80,000 a year. Her response? She took some exotic vacations across the sea. What was she thinking? And now that her unemployment has lasted 4 years, she's cut her Nordstrom's shopping sprees and let some home repairs go.

Really? REALLY???!!! Who are these people?

When my husband's family of origin was plunged into poverty because of divorce, they hit the library. They learned about plumbing and electricity by doing repairs themselves with library books to guide them. I've known many family members who had a major wage earner lose a job. They didn't squander money on vacations and fancy clothes. They cut way, way back. They learned to shop at garage sales and thrift stores. They learned to repair what they had; they learned how to mend. They learned to separate their wants from their needs.

I'm amused/appalled at these news stories that focus on what they call the middle class (I'd call them upper middle or lower upper), but these middle class people are living a very different existence than people earning lower wages. You don't hear as much about those people anymore. You don't hear about the real poor.

Maybe we should all decide to see the film Waiting for Superman. But maybe focusing on real world problems is too depressing. Maybe you want to think in more apocalyptic colors.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article, even though it's 10 years old, about all the ways the world might end; it even included some I've never considered. And in honor of Discover magazine's 30th anniversary, the author updated that article, complete with 10 new scenarios.

And if you need a down-to-earth article to remind you that more money won't necessarily make you happy, try this one. However, I'm not sure I agree with the premise of one of the article's experts: ""What really struck me was the extent to which being poor makes everything worse -- unemployment, of course, but also divorce, asthma and [having] a headache; even the weekend, which is emotionally a very good time, is less good if you're poor than if your income is higher,' says Kahneman. 'When you keep score of your life, overall, the higher income the better. But when it comes to emotions, my summary is that it's not so much that money buys you happiness, but that a lack of money below $75,000 buys you increasing misery.'"

My poverty years weren't miserable, but perhaps that's because I knew that I was accepting some tight years in the hopes that future years wouldn't be quite as extreme. I had hope for the future, because I was in school, and I had a decent shot at a better future. If President Obama could kindle that kind of hope, there's nothing we couldn't do as a collective whole.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Returning to Teaching Composition

In two weeks, we'll be starting our Fall quarter (we're on a very strange quarter system, which means we're often on a different schedule than most people). I'm returning to teaching Composition (English 1101, 101, the course that every school still has).

I last taught Composition in 2007. I didn't mean to be away so long. But I did need the break. I'd been teaching Composition since 1998, after all.

In some ways, I'm lucky. I got to take a break. Many of you would call me unlucky though--to take that break, I had to move into full-time administration, which means at least 40 hours on campus, week after week.

I'm looking forward to being back in front of that class. I plan to try some experimental things, to insert poetry wherever I can. For example, in Diane Lockward's blog post yesterday, she discusses Mark Doty's The Art of Description: World into Words : "There's also an outstanding discussion of four different sunflower poems—one by Blake, one by Alan Shapiro, one by Allen Ginsberg, and one by Tracy Jo Barnwell." That sentence immediately triggered several essay ideas. I'll have to get that book; she recommends it highly, and I like Doty.

The last time I taught Composition, we had an exit exam graded by colleagues. Now we don't. That frees me up considerably. When last I taught the class, we had no online component, unless we created one ourselves. Now we have a software platform provided by the school.

So, I've been dreamily considering a syllabus. It occurs to me that it's time to actually commit ideas to paper.

I love teaching writing of all kinds. Most people understand the importance of that skill, even if they don't approve. Literature, on the other hand, is a tougher proposition. I'm often the only one in the room who has read the material. That situation gets exhausting after awhile.

I've been pondering the impact of technology in the classroom and on our collective educational futures. I'm not the only one. For those of you who want some articles, The New York Times magazine features the subject this week. For those of you with limited time, go straight to Jaron Lanier's article on whether or not technology enfeebles the mind.

But enough Internet surfing. It's time to focus on getting ready for Fall! It's still 92 degrees here during the day, but it felt slightly cooler this morning; I think our overnight temps have finally starting dipping back into the 70's, which isn't exactly autumnal, but it's better than waking up before dawn to temps of 85 degrees.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Eloping Poets and Lords of Flies

Today is the anniversary of the day that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett eloped in 1846. What a thrilling story. She was older and more established. He wrote her a fan letter. They exchanged what seems today to be an extraordinary number of letters (although if you look at the writing habits of nineteenth century British people, authors and non-authors alike, it's clear that the nineteenth century may well prove to have been a golden age of letter writing, despite the high postal rates of the time). She was a semi-invalid. That fact did not deter him. He spirited her away, they married, and they moved to Italy, where they each wrote some of their most important works. She died in his arms.

For people who assure you that marriage, parenthood, or any human relationship ruins creativity, the story of the Brownings can provide comfort. Would Elizabeth Barrett Browning have written her impressive Aurora Leigh without that marriage? Would Robert Browning have done as much with the dramatic monologue without her encouragement? What would civilization look like without the line: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"?

It's also the birthday of William Golding, who is most famous as the author of Lord of the Flies. One of my high school teachers told us that he wrote the book because he couldn't find any book that neatly demonstrated the literary techniques he was trying to teach the high schoolers that he taught. Voila! And then he could stop teaching, of course.

Of course, the real story isn't quite that neat. The novel was rejected 21 times, and only stayed in print for a year or two, selling very few copies, when it was first published. But then it was reintroduced in the 60's, and has gone on to be that rare best seller that continues to be popular in high school and college classrooms.

What an influence this text has had on our popular culture. How do supposedly civilized people behave when stranded away from civilization? Golding wasn't the first to wrestle with that popular theme, but he did it so memorably. Would we have had Lost without that originating text? How would it have been different?

My favorite riff on the Lord of the Flies theme is a Simpsons episode which I'm too lazy to look up. I love that show because it's so rich with allusions, literary and otherwise. It's an English major's dream. It's one of the few shows that makes me laugh loudly and think deeply in the same show.

So, today, in honor of the Brownings, maybe I'll write a love sonnet. Maybe I'll write a dramatic monologue using the voice of some despot. In honor of Golding and the Brownings both, I'll dream of writing a creation that continues to surface in classrooms, long after I'm dead.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

For White Girls, Who Have Forgotten So Much of Everything They Ever Read

My post is not only for white girls, of course. And males are welcome here too. I have that language on the brain after reading an article about Ntozke Shange and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf . Actually, the article focuses on her new novel that she cowrote with her sister. It does mention that Tyler Perry directed the film.

My reaction might be similar to yours: Tyler Perry???!!!! Really? But I'm willing to be surprised. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief because of the amazing cast. And of course, because of the luminous quality of Shange's writing.

But then, to my shock, I realized that I can't actually recall much of that writing. Now I've read the text, several times, and seen it performed. Granted, that's getting to be a long time ago, way back in grad school, in the early 90's. But I remember weeping because I was so moved. I remember carrying the book around with me when I needed courage during those grad school years.

Very well, back to the bookshelf, holder of all knowledge. But that book seems to have migrated to someone else's library. Or did I ever own it? Maybe I just kept renewing it from the library.

It staggers me, to think about how much I've spent on the books that I no longer own. It staggers me to think about all the books I've read but no longer remember. But I am not alone.

I read this article in The New York Times, which revolves around this issue: "So we in the forgetful majority must, I think, confront the following question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?" It goes on to reassure us that those books have become embedded in our neural pathways, even if we can't remember the specifics.

Still, I wish I could remember half of all the books I've read.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Penelope Days and Gingerbread Evenings

Yesterday was one of those surreal days at work, those Penelope days I call them. I spent much time yesterday redoing Faculty Development Files once again. Standardize this kind of entry, find this kind of documentation, simplify this, modify that--pretty soon the whole day is shot, the whole week has vanished.

I think of Penelope, weaving her tapestry by day, unravelling it at night. I weave these files from the threads that faculty provide, and then I unravel what they've done and try to put it back together in the way that the administration will like. And then, it will all go to the accreditors, who may require more weaving and unweaving.

Insert a heavy, heavy sigh here. Did I go to graduate school for this? Let me not dwell on that question. I can't afford that introspection right now.

I did become an administrator to make life easier for faculty. And if I can do the weaving and unweaving, so that faculty are free to teach, so be it.

By the end of my afternoon of copying and filing, I wasn't good for very much. So I picked up a volume of poetry. I didn't expect to be able to read much. On Wednesday, after the first round of copying and filing, I returned home and could only read a chapter or two of Julia Glass' The Whole World Over. I assumed poetry would be that much more impossible.

Wrong, wrong, gloriously wrong. I picked up Ava Leavell Haymon's wonderful volume of poems, Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread. She does amazing work weaving together modern life with the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. There are undertones of abuse and darkness, but they don't overwhelm the work. Maybe I was just in a mood to handle the darkness that some of these poems contain.

Here are some stanzas to whet your appetite:

"The witch, what of her?
She would wait, neither happy
nor unhappy. She had cooked
herself up after all

and could do so again, exist
as undeniably in recipe form
as in a cake slice on the saucer.
A rite of passage cake--"



"Knowing the sugar house
dangerous, even evil, Gretel walked
toward it. After long enough in the woods,

any house of your own kind seems a shelter.
They had seen dens, lair, deer huddles,
small round nests of finches."

("First wish")


"Why does the story begin with the mother
dead? The walls of gingerbread--
they were not on plumb. They'd yawned

against each other, skidded sideways a bit
till the eggwhites in the icing set hard.
Who raises, who braces walls with only sugar?"

("Fairy-Tale Childhood")

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Peace--Separate and Otherwise

Today is the birthday of John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace. Does anybody read this book anymore? It's a vivid book memory for me. When I was in 8th grade, my family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia in the middle of a school year. The Quest class (a Philosophy, Ethics, Great Thoughts blend of a class, as I recall) was reading the book, and I arrived on the day that they discussed the climax, the death of Phineas. I couldn't wait to read the book. I couldn't believe that a friend could do something as monstrous as jounce his best friend from a tree.

Ah, youth. Now I know that the ones who love you are the ones who know the surest way to break your heart. Now I know that love and hate live in the same neighborhood; it's indifference that lives in a different time zone, a distant zip code. Now I've had a glimpse of all the different emotional currents that can swirl around in one person.

I reread the book when I was in my early 30's, and not surprisingly, I didn't find it as compelling. It was like visiting a childhood friend with whom you don't have much in common: fun for an afternoon once a year, but nothing you'd want to do every day.

When I first read the book, I only had a shadowy idea of what a prep school was. I'd never met anyone who went to prep school, or any other kind of boarding school. My parents were solidly middle class, and we lived in smaller Southern cities. Back in those days, a middle class salary didn't buy you a prep school education. Perhaps private school, if your parents scrimped, but not prep school.

Today is also the birthday of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the more interesting scholars of the last part of the twentieth century (and on into this century, of course). His work on early African-American writers helped transform how many of us view American Literature. I was intrigued to see that he got his start in a community college.

It's also the anniversary of the day that the Mayflower set sail.

If I was in a novel-writing phase of my life, I'd try to figure out a way to weave these strands together: blue bloods and African-Americans and early beginnings and persecuted Pilgrims and Mayflower Compacts. Maybe I should ponder poetry possibilities. Nah, I've got too many poetry ideas that I haven't developed yet.

Last night, I wrote a poem for the first time since September 4. In my small amount of spare time, I've been working on a short story, which means I haven't been working on poems. But as long as I'm working on some kind of writing, I'm happy and at peace.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Mini-Vacation Ends

I didn't mean to go silent for so long with no warning. I knew that I was headed off to see my parents who were vacationing, but I try not to advertise too widely when the house will be empty--plus, I thought I'd only be gone for the week-end, so a 2 day silence wouldn't be too unusual. But 2 days stretched to 4, what with travel and all those tasks that take priority when one returns home.

My parents stayed at a resort, and they had an extra bedroom, so when they invited us to join them, we decided to go. I wish we could have stayed longer, like we did at Hilton Head last year. But the timing didn't work out. The nice thing about Orlando being so close is that we could stay until after dinner on Monday. Of course, I always forget that Orlando is not that close. That close to 4 hour drive left me worn out yesterday--the drive, and the 2 hour conference on faculty development files.

I could have gone online; the resort has Internet access. But I tried to limit my online time--it sucks away so much time and doesn't leave me relaxed. And I needed to feel relaxed! So, I read by the pool--ahhhhh. I read Salmon Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence. What a wonderful book. I haven't read any Rushdie before.

I feel so fortunate to have parents who are still mobile and fairly healthy. I know it will not always be so, and thus, I try to enjoy their company as often as I can. I keep thinking that I should do more to take advantage of their healthy minds now. I keep wondering what questions I will wish I had asked. Of course, I've spent my life asking those questions. I should probably start writing everything down, now, while my memory is good.

So, back to my writer's life. I need to finish the short story that was keeping me up last week. I need to write a poem or two or three before September ends. I've been doing a good job at keeping up with submissions, but I need to keep plowing ahead.

It's hard to believe that September is half over. Our weather is still in full summer mode, so part of me feels that it's really early August. But summer is over. It really, really is. Before we know it, the Fall holidays will be upon us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

In the Wee, Small Hours of the Morning

Anyone who is paying attention to my house must wonder at the fact that we would appear never to sleep. Our lights are never out for long. My spouse goes to bed usually some time between 11 and midnight, and a few hours later, I'm getting up.

There are periods when I can't sleep because I have too much to get done (like in the 3 weeks before Christmas). There are times I can't sleep because I'm fretful. Lately I haven't been able to sleep because my characters are keeping me up at night--or I should say, waking me up extra early.

I've hung out with these characters before. They first showed up in short stories that I wrote in late 1997 and 1998. This summer, as I've thought about linked short stories, I saw how so many of my short stories involved these characters, even if they were named somebody else. I've rewritten past short stories and written one new one. And this week, I've been writing another new story, and I can't sleep because it's so delightful--but the only time I can be sure that I'll get writing done is in the wee, small hours of the morning, when everybody else is asleep.

I feel like I'm hanging out with old friends, and in many ways I am. The characters that I create often become real to me. And they're often based on even older friends, people who really exist, or on amalgamations of several friends.

I used to worry about the fact that these characters kept showing up through the years, but now I embrace them. In her fabulous book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See says, "What if you quickly made a list of the ten most 'important' people in your life? Without thinking about it, or trying to make a good impression on anyone, or a bad impression either? Whom do you love? Who betrayed you? Whom did you betray? Who drives you nuts? Who's out of your reach? Who's your role model? Who's your benchmark for insanity?" (page 118).

See says that these will be our characters for life. I felt such comfort when I read that. I finally quit worrying about the fact that I seem to have several archetypal characters--I don't mean archetypal in the Joseph Campbell way, but archetypal to my writing. A future graduate student poring over my work would notice some recurring types: the characters with alternate sexualities who are both transgressive and ordinary, the ones with the passionate zeal for life, the gardeners/weavers/quilters/bread bakers with a sturdy sensibility, the ones with mystical insight into the spirituality of our times, the activists who veer into zealotry. Those folks show up again and again--and they often fall in love with each other, in ways I never intended or anticipated.

And I fall in love with them, which makes sense, because I have loved the real humans who inspired them. In this age of Facebook, I wonder how many writers have contacted past friends, only to feel dismay at realizing the person they really wanted to contact was a character created from the fabric of that friend's life.

So, I'm not getting much sleep this week. But it's wonderful to be writing fiction again.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Migrations, Inner and Outer

Oh, how I wish I had vast swaths of time in which to read. There are several books out that sound fascinating, but they're non-fiction and huge, and my history hasn't been good with huge works of non-fiction read in the hour here and the hour there that I have to read.

I want to buy the book The Warmth of Other Suns, just for the title alone. What a GREAT title. And the subject matter sounds great too: the Great Migration, that movement of African-Americans from the U.S. South to the North and the West, during the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. I've read that it was one of the biggest relocations of people for a non-war reason.

Of course, you might say that there was a war of sorts. When I've heard about the lives of African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era South, it horrifies me. Even beyond the separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, and Bibles in the courtrooms--I've heard more than one older black person recounting road trips where everyone took a potty break before crossing the Mason-Dixon line, because they wouldn't be stopping again until they left the South.

Imagine driving across multiple states without stopping to stretch your legs, to get a Coke, to go to the bathroom. Imagine vast chunks of the nation where there was literally no place where you could get a hotel room for the night.

Isabel Wilkerson has imagined it, and her book, which has gotten rave reviews, helps us imagine it too. I especially love this story which talks about her writing process, her immersion in that oral culture that taught her about the time, her immersion in artifacts from that time. She also talks about the migrations of her family and her own migration back to the South (some demographers are calling this time period the Third Great Migration, as African Americans move back to the South).

I also wish I had some time to read Helen Vendler's new book, which is really Emily Dickinson's old book. At least this one sounds like one I could dip in and out of; as Michael Dirda quotes in his review, "As Vendler writes in her introduction to 'Dickinson,' hers isn't so much a book to read through as 'a book to be browsed in, as the reader becomes interested in one or another of the poems commented on here.'"

I've always wanted to understand Dickinson better than I do, and it sounds like this book will be just the guidebook I've wanted; Dirda writes, "Emily Dickinson is certainly never going to be an easy poet to understand, but her dense, poignant lyrics are now a lot more accessible to ordinary readers thanks to Vendler's unravelings. If you're going to read Dickinson, this 'selected poems and commentary' is the place to start."

I'll start by listening to this NPR program where Helen Vendler is the guest. And then I'll get the book and commit to reading at least one poem and commentary each week. I will also choose a modern poem and write a commentary on it here--yes, that's what I'll do. I'll start next week. It will likely be a poem that has yet to make it into anthologies. And when I start teaching Composition again, in October, I'm going to experiment with poetry and essay writing, again with more results here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Summer Gratitude List

Now that this summer draws to a close, it seems a good time to reflect. Instead of a simple list of accomplishments, let me think about what makes me grateful:

--So far, the BP oil spill has not wrecked the reefs here. Now, they're still under threat, no doubt, with rising sea temperatures and the acidification of the ocean. But at least they haven't been wiped out all at once. There's not much hope for resurrection if that happens.

--I wrote 20 poems since May 24, and that doesn't count the false starts, the ideas that haven't been developed yet, the lines that may yet develop into something.

--I wrote a short story, the first time I've written a short story since 2003. Better yet, I figured out how to create a volume of linked short stories.

--I did these things because I was so inspired by Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. What a good book. I feel happy to live in a world that gives me such good books. Runner up for best book of summer: Justin Cronin's The Passage.

--I've had some poems published, and managed to maintain my submission schedule.

--I had a great visit with my family in June, culminating in a boat trip: me, spouse, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew--hurrah, we can be happy on a sailboat for a week.

--I've managed to cut down on the amount of sugar that I put in my morning coffee. I've cut my sugar use in half. It's taken me months to get used to the taste, but just the other morning, it occurred to me that my coffee finally tastes good again. Perhaps it's time to cut back further?

--A few weeks ago, a woman in spin class told me that I was really getting stronger. I feel like I've taken a quantum leap in terms of my biking abilities. I've also been able to do some runs, which during our summer of record breaking heat is no small thing. It's been several years since I did a 3 mile run in summer. This year, most weeks, I've done that at least once (I go to spin class 4 times a week, and I try to run two days a week).

--I'm always grateful for the basics: food, a house, friends near and far, cars that continue to run, good health for me and my loved ones. Even my grandmother, who had a fall and broke her ankle earlier in the summer, has recovered nicely.

--I'm grateful for the good life I enjoy beyond the basics: gourmet food, a job that I like, wine, being able to afford some meals out, musical instruments.

--I've made more bread this summer than I have in a long time. I'm grateful for my sourdough starter and the discipline it imposes on my kitchen.

--Our new AC unit is the gift that keeps giving, first in the tax credit, and this summer in the lowest electrical bills ever for a summer in this house (down here, summer is our high electric bill time; mercifully, no winter furnace costs).

--I realize that I'm especially lucky this summer, because any problem I have is a problem that can be solved if I had just a bit of extra money. I try to adopt the attitude of a friend of Anne Lamott's, which she relates in Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith: " . . . if you have a problem you can solve by throwing money at it, you don't have a very interesting problem" (page 259).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How to Help the Brain Learn

Today is the day that many students return to school; many students have already been in school for weeks. The New York Times has an interesting article that posits that all we think we know about study habits, and some of what we know about learning, is wrong.

Think about the ideal study place. You're probably imagining some place with few distractions, a clean desk, good lighting. You're probably imagining that the most effective way of studying is to plant yourself and concentrate for 3 or 4 or 5 hours.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Variety turns out to matter. Here are the results of an interesting study: "But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics."

And varying the subject matter studied matters too: "Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills."

The article posits that frequent testing is important. The more we make the brain retrieve information, the more solidly the brain stores that information.

The article tells us that what we think we know about teaching may be wrong. Different teaching styles can all work; as someone who manages a large department full of different teaching personalities, I was relieved to read that.

And we've spent several decades now learning about how some children are visual learners and some are auditory learners and some are kinesthetic. This article says that there's no evidence for these theories. Shocking! It even dismisses the idea of some students being right brain learners and some being left brain.

The article is full of ideas about the best ways to help the brain learn. These techniques can be adapted for all of us, since the best way to age gracefully is to continue learning new things.

So, happy back to school, back to a more structured life, back to rigor. We won't have fall weather here in the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. for at least 6 weeks, maybe several months. But already, I feel a change in the air (metaphorical not meteorological), a slight tilt in the sun's light.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Zen and the Art of Communal Living

Today is the birthday of Robert Pirsig, most famous for writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book which I've already written about at some length here. The story of this book's path to publication has given comfort to many a writer; it was rejected 121 times, and has gone on to sell over 5 million copies. May all our worthy yet rejected manuscripts fare as well--or even half as well!

I thought of that book briefly, as we watched Wild Hogs this week-end. I wondered if any of those characters could fix their bike, should something go wrong in the middle of nowhere. The answer would be no, which is part of the plotline of the movie: suburban men leaving their comfortable lives. I felt this urge to hop on a motorcycle and see America, even though I knew I'd be more comfortable in a camper, especially in terms of safety.

I wish I was mechanically minded. I wish I could play an instrument. You might think these two statements have nothing to do with each other, but in some ways, they do.

Yesterday, my spouse and I wrote a song. He came up with the music as he plucked at his violin, and I started to create some lyrics. We even have enough rudimentary music theory in our brains that we could write it down.

Is it a song that will change the world? No. But it was fun to create together.

Today is also the birthday of Jane Addams, creator of communal living environments extraordinaire. She created a communal house in England, before returning to the states to transform Chicago. Well, perhaps that's a stretch. But maybe not. Two thousand people each week used the social services and spaces (day care, library, meeting spaces) provided by Hull House. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

I've always been fascinated by communal living experiments, and have done some dabbling of my own; in the 90's, my spouse and I had 2 housemates, both good friends, and their pets. I continue to think about that experiment and ways it could be improved upon. At the same time, I've gone to monasteries, which have been doing communal living in successful ways for thousands of years.

I wonder if having a spiritual focus helps communal projects have longevity. If a community gathers together to pray regularly, perhaps it's harder to fight or carry a grudge.

I wonder if having an artistic focus helps communal projects have longevity. If a community supports artistic visions and enables people to live out those visions, will people be more committed?

I continue to have this dream of a huge piece of land where every resident would have his or her own cottage. There would be communal spaces, like a kitchen, a media center, a chapel, a library, a studio with art supplies of every kind. There would be hiking trails, a huge garden, and perhaps some small animals, like chickens and goats.

Could such a place be self-supporting? Perhaps by selling eggs, produce, goat cheese? Or by having visitors come for retreats? Is this just a crazy utopian dream?

My grandmother, who grew up on a farm that supported several generations, used to scoff at my ideas of returning to the land. She told me that I had no idea how hard it was. But I've always been attracted to the idea of being self-sufficient. My great-uncle (my grandmother's brother) always pointed out that the family had been well fed during the Great Depression, and able to feed others. They may have had to wear their shoes with the holes in the soles patched up, but they never went hungry.

In these days of the Great Recession, it's an appealing idea. The idea of such a place also supporting people's spiritual and creative aspirations makes it an even sweeter dream.

Now, how to go from dream to plan . . .

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Rethinking and Reshaping Higher Education

All over a variety of media this season, one of the targets of ire has been tenured professors and education in general (from high school on up, although we see quite a focus lately on post-high school education). For those of you who have missed it, here's an essay in The New York Times that sums it up nicely. Several books have just been published that call for an end to tenure and an end to how college has been done. These authors have been on the interview trail to promote their books, and I've listened.

I've felt a profound sense of disconnect.

Where are these professors that these books excoriate? People who earn over $100,000 a year? I've never met a one. People who only work a few hours a week? In what teaching universe?

I know the answer: at some of the most elite universities. But let's be bluntly honest: most higher ed faculty aren't teaching in that world.

The higher ed faculty I know are teaching an extra class for free or taking furlough days. They're grumpy, but they know they're lucky to hang on to full-time teaching jobs. I also know plenty of people cobbling together a pittance by teaching lots of classes as an adjunct and working in tutoring centers.

Even faculty at state schools aren't living the life of leisure described by these books. They may have a 3-3 teaching load, but they have scads of other duties.

I suspect that these authors are mad about a state of affairs that hasn't existed in years, or decades. I had a similar sense when I read Christopher Hitchen's God is Not Great. Hitchens wasn't describing a church that I had ever known. He was still mad about Church, as it existed in the middle of the twentieth century. If he had explored the Church of the 3rd world in the 21st century, he might have really found something to worry about.

Still, these authors make some valid points. Many of us are teaching a curriculum that was valid for the middle of the 2oth century, but may need some rethinking for this century. That's a topic for another post, but a question for today: if you were remaking college curriculum, how would you shape it? An Economics professor takes a stab here. What would your answer be?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Online vs. Paper

I thought about giving this post this title: "When It Rains It Pours." But in a week where a hurricane lashes almost the whole Atlantic coast, with more systems swirling out there, I decided on a more mundane title.

But really, how many weeks can I remember where I have 2 poems published? Not many, if any. My poem, "Left Behind," is up at Qarrtsiluni. Go here to read it or to click on the link to hear me read it. It's a poem which imagines what happens after the feeding of the 5000 by Jesus. And yes, the poem is a playful nod to that wildly popular series of apocalyptic books from a decade ago, but those books really have nothing to do with this poem.

Two poems in one week--and both in online journals. That rarely happens with paper journals, but I do notice that acceptances often come in clumps. No mystery there--I usually work on submissions in a big burst.

Qarrtsiluni was one of the first online journals that made me really see that the online form could do so much more than paper. First of all there's all the color that an online journal can use. And then, there's audio, a whole new dimension. Can video be far behind?

And then there's the matter of readers. Karen writes here about the readership that she has that she wouldn't have without online journals. And more of us are reading online and expect to be able to read online. If a voracious devourer of books like me finds myself increasingly reading on a computer, what does that say for the rest of the world. My poem on Qarrtsiluni can be delivered by all the means that younger readers have come to expect: podcast, e-mail feed, I-tunes. And yes, I realize that I'm probably leaving out some content delivery system that only younger readers know about right now.

For those of you who are ready to dip your toe into the electronic waters and submit, Diane Lockward writes here about what she'd like in an online journal and she she gives us a list of journals that fit her criteria here.

I think about an older generation of writers and wonder if they'd have been happier with an online option. Today is the birthday of Richard Wright, who finally got so disgusted with his country that he moved to Paris. I doubt that being able to publish online would have eased his eventual hatred of his native country.

I remember reading Black Boy in high school, because Native Son was deemed too intense for us. So, naturally, I read Native Son. Now I read that there's an unexpurgated version. Holy cow! The expurgated version was intense enough, as I remember it. Those two books paint an important picture of what life was like for minorities before the Civil Rights era.

I do think that the Internet, with all its content options, has helped usher in a brave, new world. In some ways, we may have a less repressed era, since we all control the printing press. Unfortunately, it's up to each of us to make smart content choices, and I continue to be horrified at how unskilled many people are at determining the truth and horrified at how skilled people are at manipulating human gullibility.

That overwhelming abundance of information makes me especially appreciative of online journals. There's one poem on the screen; I can handle that. A thick journal that arrives by U.S. Post is too much. It goes in the never ending stack of paper bundles that wait to be read.

Friday, September 3, 2010

"Sleepless Beauties"

One of my poems, "Sleepless Beauties," appears in the latest edition of The Innisfree Poetry Journal. Go here to read it.

I wrote it several years ago, a time when I seemed to have a majority of friends who had teenage daughters. Their experiences made me think of my own teenage years, and my sister's teenage years. At the same time, I was seeing the teenage girl years, second hand, through the eyes of the mom. I was reading fairy tales and reading blog postings about fairy tales. All of those influences came together into the poem that you'll see when you navigate on over to The Innisfree Poetry Journal.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hurricane Distractedness

With Hurricane Earl off our shores, I find myself increasingly distracted. In some ways, there's no reason to be so distracted; we don't really expect the storm to affect us. Actually, we've already been affected, but in a good way, with gorgeous weather: a strong breeze, drop in the humidity, achingly blue skies, and heat that isn't unbearable.

Hurricane Charley will always haunt me, with its last minute change in direction. If you lived in the Port Charlotte area, you'd have likely gone to work in the morning, expecting a Category 2 hurricane to hit the Tampa area, some 3 hours north of you. You might not have boarded up the house or laid in supplies. And then, 6 hours later, you'd have a Category 4 hurricane bearing down upon you.

In 2005, my spouse and I briefly thought about not using the hurricane shutters as Hurricane Wilma approached. Wilma was going to approach us from the west, so we thought we might not even have a real hurricane. But I knew that Wilma had already made history as the most intense hurricane on record, with that dropping barometric pressure. I was haunted by Wilma parking herself over the Yucatan peninsula for 2 days. Two days with a hurricane roaring overhead. Good grief! So we closed up the house, and I'm glad we did. I have friends who swear we experienced a strong Category 3 hurricane, but the official record was only a Category 2. It's amazing the damage that was sustained, some damage that still isn't fixed.

And so, I go to the NOAA site periodically. I go to Dr. Jeff Masters' blog at the weatherunderground site. I am fascinated by all the people who comment. I am mesmerized by all the images. All these currents of wind and water that swirl around the planet, and so many of us move through life with no awareness of them.

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

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

No, I will return to these poems in the winter, when the Atlantic cools a bit. I will appreciate this time, since I suspect that during my lifetime, we will cease to have a separate hurricane season. I suspect the seas will continue to warm, which will mean that we will always be susceptible.

But let us not think of that. Let us return to our resolutions to live a better life. Today I will pick up a different book of poetry, perhaps the latest by Diane Lockward or Susan Rich. They, too, have been on my to read shelf all summer. I'll plan good meals.

If you, like me, have been feeling some amount of shame about the dinner ritual, you must read this great article at The Washington Post. The article exhorts us to return to dinner the way Mom did it. The article posits that too many of us are striving to be too gourmet or too exotic every night of the week. Time to return to some time honored approaches which are quick and nutritious. Many of the cooks advocate the simple meat, two veggies, and a starch. But I'd also include stews and casseroles. I've been feeling somewhat guilty about our once-a-week pleasure dinner of grilled hamburgers (with meat from a local shop that grinds its own, so the risk of contagion is reduced) and red wine. But lo and behold, those types of meals are advocated by many of the home cooks interviewed in the article.

So, it's been a half hour since I looked at radar images. Time to bring this writing to a halt so that I can stare mesmerized into the whorls of a satellite stream!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Technologies, Old and New

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about technology on any given day, but during the past 24 hours, I've thought about it more than usual. I spent time photocopying, a technology that still seems miraculous to me--and now, many of us can afford a small, home copying machine (in the form of our printers, which can print scanned documents, or our printer-copier-scanner-fax machines that many of us have).

Then I went to my book club, which celebrates an older technology. We're all still reading the books we choose on paper. We discussed Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book which wrestles with the eclipsing of various technologies, especially in the music business, and it presents the first successful short story told in PowerPoint format. We meet in a classroom, and towards the end of our meeting, students started to arrive for one of our member's classes. It was great to watch them watching us talking about books. By then, we had started talking about Justin Cronin's The Passage. Vampires, the end of the world, disease! Several students started taking notes.

I came home and prepared some poetry packets for my fall mailing. How many years have I greeted fall by sending out my poems in envelopes with stamps? Many, many years. But this year, I'm just as likely to send them electronically. It's a shift; we seem to have reached a turning point where more journals accept electronic submissions than don't.

We realized later in the evening that we needed some cash for the yard guy. I hate going to ATMs at night, so we went to the grocery store, where we could pick up some groceries and write a check and get change. How many years has it been since I wrote a check for actual goods that I bought, goods right there in front of me in front of a cash register? Sure, I'll purchase my electricity that way. But a check for groceries? Years, if not decades.

While in the grocery store, my spouse had a hankering for Kool-Aid, which led us to the powdered drink aisle--or the powdered drink section of the prepared drink (but not soda pop) aisle. We had exactly 4 choices, all rather mundane: cherry, grape, lemonaid, and tropical punch. What happened to the Sparkleberry Punch flavor? We bought 5 packets for a dollar, which may be overpriced for citric acid, I'm not sure. It still seems cheap to me. We're probably the only people in the tri-county area still mixing up our own Kool-aid and making our own iced tea, the way our moms did, and their moms before them.

This morning, I noticed that I'm not the only one thinking about technology. At The New York Times, there's a great essay written by a man who went to a Buddhist retreat where he spent 5 hours meditating and 5 hours walking each day. He returned home to observe his brain wrestling with technology: "So there you go: covetousness, schadenfreude, anxiety, dread, and on and on. It’s the frequent fruitlessness of such feelings that the Buddha is said to have pondered after he unplugged from the social grid of his day — that is, the people he lived around — and wandered off to reckon with the human predicament. Maybe his time off the grid gave him enough critical distance from these emotions to discover his formula for liberation from them. In any event, it’s because the underlying emotions haven’t changed, and because the grid conveys and elicits them with such power, that his formula holds appeal for many people even, and perhaps especially, today."

And at the same website, the ever-wonderful William Gibson weighs in on visions of the world envisioned by older sci-fi and the reality of Google: "Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species."

We live in interesting times, as we watch technologies seem to eclipse each other and then sometimes, technology comes swooping back to reclaim a piece of territory. We wrestle with new technology's impact on our attention span, just as humanity has always wrestled with issues of attention, intention, and efficiency.

What will today bring? Before I get too enswamped in modern technology, maybe I'll read a poem or two. Maybe several times. Sandy has a great post on reading a manuscript and thinking about how she should change her approach to reading volumes of poetry. Maybe I'll adopt her strategy for a single poem. Maybe I'll choose one poem each week and spend each day reading that same poem several times. An interesting Fall resolution . . .