Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In Which My Dreams Turn to the U.N.

This has been one of the quarters at work where I find myself thinking of other careers.  Like being a U.N. relief worker.  I daydream of taking crates of food to Africa to bring relief to famine victims.

Sure, I'd have to deal with evil dictators and corrupt militaries.  And I'd probably get sick with strange diseases.  So, maybe not a good idea.

Still, I dream of bringing high nutrient nut paste to the mouths of children.  I find myself thinking of my college friend with whom I used to argue over what form of social justice was most important.  I remember one conversation where she said she could support feeding starving babies because they were truly deserving.

But I'd be happy to bring high nutrient nut paste to starving stomachs anywhere.  At the end of the day, I'd know I saved some lives.

Of course, it isn't that simple.  I may have saved a person's life one day, but it's still band-aid work.  I still won't have solved the larger issue of hunger and starvation.  I won't have changed the social system that leads to it, and I certainly can't change the weather systems that are going to subject us all to ever more extreme weather.

Some day we'll look back on this summer's droughts and we'll laugh at the way we thought they were severe.  That's what scares me.

In the meantime, I have my own band-aid work to be doing.  I'd like to change the larger structure of post-high-school education here in the U.S., but on a daily basis, I've got a department to try to help keep running smoothly.  There are students who need classes and teachers who need students.  It's time to create the schedule for Winter quarter and for our Fall midquarter classes.  The dance continues, and I'll try to keep my Zen teahouse calm (see yesterday's post to understand that concept more fully).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Tidbits with Trout and Teahouses

--Overheard last night at the gym:  "Because I'm not psychotic like your bridesmaids.  I can make a rational decision about a dress."  Imagine this said by an athletic, tall, blond, well-muscled but not overmuscled guy in workout clothes.  It struck me as both very funny, very post-modern in terms of overturning gender expectations, and a great writing prompt (who's this guy talking to?  Could it be that he'll be wearing a dress?  is he the groom?  friend of the bride?  former lover of the bride?  oh the possibilities from an overheard tidbit!).

--a reader writes to ask me why I don't have descriptions of what my books are about on my website and blogsites.  Hmm.  The honest answer:  it never occurred to me.  Maybe I'll spend some time this Labor Day week-end thinking about doing a bit of redesign.  I started my blogs and website with several purposes in mind, but one of them is to give information to readers and to inspire interest in my work.  How could I have overlooked something so basic?

--I will also spend this week-end thinking about literary festivals and arranging readings, both local and out of town.

--I will also write a poem before Labor Day Monday is over.  I will write a complete poem.  I will.

--My nephew started kindergarten yesterday.  This morning, I got pictures of him and his new backpack and his brave smiles and his first day coloring in his classroom.  He had a great day yesterday and can't wait to go back today.  I felt this stab of envy and longing.  I remember a time when the classroom was fun, before the accountants and the bean counters and the assessors took over.

--Yup, I will admit the dark humor in that last sentence.  Careful readers of this blog know that I have become one of the bean counters.  I rarely teach in the traditional sense these days.  I am an administrator, and many days, my job consists of wrangling e-mails, most of which weren't important when they were written and almost all will not be important a few months later, when I have to sort through them to keep my e-mail system from shutting down completely.  There are days that I feel I do important work and solve important problems, but not as many of those days as when I taught.  Still, I'm good at administration, and while the world, my world at least, is full of talented teachers, we have far fewer people who are good at administration.

--For those of you who want an insight into the day of an administrator, see this post and scroll down, where I imagine live blogging my day as an administrator who tries to make time for poetry too.

--It's interesting to me that I feel that I only feel I'm doing meaningful work if I'm making an important difference each and every day.  And if I'm being honest, I want it to be an important difference like the kind that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks made, the kind of difference where future generations will be better off because I walked the planet (and yes, I realize this could sound like monstrous ego, but it's also fueled by a fierce yearning for social justice).  Did Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King feel that they made a difference each and every day?  Probably not.  It's only in retrospect that it's clear.

--I'd like to move towards the Buddhist teahouse approach of meaningful work.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen.  It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road.  Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea.  She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, "This is the Zen teahouse."  All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it.  No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words:  A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).

--You can read a great interview with Jane Hirshfield here.

--If you've got access to trout, here's a fabulous recipe.  The recipe may only be available for one more week, so go download it now.  You won't be sorry.  My spouse made it last night, and it was hard to stop eating it.  He served it with Yukon Gold potatoes that tasted like they had been soaked in butter, but he swears he used no butter.  He likely used the full amount of the sauce, even though we had about half the amount of fish called for.  Yum.  He thinks it would be better with fresh blueberries; he used frozen.  We had a well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc, and I can't imagine a better way to end the day. 

--In fact, it was so tasty, that I'm tempted to begin the day with it, by eating the leftovers.  I suppose I'll be practical and stick to my yogurt-berry smoothie.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Own Private River Phoenix Sunday

I'm probably the last person in America who hasn't seen Stand by Me, so on Wednesday, when I saw it at the public library, I grabbed it.  Yesterday, I watched it.  Then I wanted to see River Phoenix a bit more grown up, so I watched Running on Empty.

Both films hold up well.  I remember showing Running on Empty to students a few years ago, and being a bit shocked at how much history I had to explain to them.  I paired the movie with the documentary Weather Underground, and I wanted them to write about which one worked better, a true-story documentary or a made up story based on truth.  The assignment should have worked, but it really didn't, in part, I suspect because I was more interested in the subject matter than they'll ever be.  Or maybe I should have tried it again.

It was interesting to see all those various actors at much younger points in their lives, including a very young Keifer Sutherland, before he became a vampire in Lost Boys and later a special agent in 24.  It was interesting to see how the themes wove their ways throughout the films.  And of course, that theme of love and loss, who you can count on and who you can't, that theme was even more bittersweet considering that River Phoenix would be dead of a drug overdose not that many years later.

Sure, we could have gone outside and been more active.  But I feel like I've been going and going and going this summer.  It was nice to take an afternoon, do some cooking and settle down for some movies.

And let me just sing the value of the public library, which I've sung before and which I will again.  When we thought we might be stuck inside for awhile because of hurricane Irene, my spouse and I headed over and checked out an armful of books and DVDs.  Since we were at a smaller branch, we couldn't check out other things that we could have at larger branches, like artwork or music (both the recorded and the sheet music kind).  Linda Holmes writes eloquently about the value of libraries here, and I couldn't agree with her more.

I won't be watching My Own Private Idaho, despite the title of my blog post.  I watched it once, and that was more than enough.  It's time for my River Phoenix festival to end, time to head back to work and regular life.  Regular life--what is that exactly?  Each week at work since July has brought more surprises than the next, and some of them have been unpleasant, to the point that I'm a bit wary.  Regular life--yes, I'd like to be back to a regular life that's free of bad news about numbers and cancellations and impending storms of doom and other catastrophic weather.  Yes, regular boring life--that sounds good to me right now.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Safety Saturday Slivers

Yesterday was a day when I spent a lot of time thinking about safety:

--Those of you who have been reading this blog know that I've been somewhat obsessed with Hurricane Irene and earthquakes and other signs of impending doom.  Let us not forget the drought in Texas, as many parts of Texas shattered heat and drought records in the past week.  People complain about the heat in South Florida, but our record breaking highs are 94-96 degrees, not 114 degrees.

And then there's the catastrophe in Africa, both the one going on now, and the ones in the past.  For part of the day, I listened to a story on a program broadcast on my public radio station about a mother in the wrong place at the wrong time in Rwanda in 1994, and her desperate attempt to make it to Zaire.  Yikes.

--We got news of the death of Stetson Kennedy, who took great risks to his personal safety to expose the evil of the Klan.  He was 94 years old and had lived a good life.  Still thinking about his life and the ways that our society is better because of people like him leads me to wonder if I'm too concerned about my own safety (health insurance!  a steady income!).  How would our society be better if more of us started thinking of the common good?

I'm lucky because I got to meet Stetson Kennedy a few years ago; go here for my photo essay about that encounter.

--I spent the better part of the morning crafting a safe space policy for our church.  We're switching insurers, and we need to have an official policy:  spelling out abusive behavior that isn't allowed, a process that will be followed should abuse occur, a screening process for volunteers and employees, ways we'll try to avoid leaving ourselves open to abuse and liability.

In the process, I looked over a lot of these documents from other church bodies, and felt my emotions shutting down at the thought of all the risks we face, particularly if we're minors.  How I wish we didn't have to think about these things.  How I wish we lived in a world where people didn't prey on little children.

I know that documents like the one I'm creating make that world closer to reality.  I know that churches of my childhood never considered that abuse could occur, and that left a lot of us vulnerable.  I'm lucky in that I never experienced abuse at church--but I can't close my eyes to all the people who did.

--Needing to take a break from crafting a safety statement, I went out to buy a car booster seat for my not-so-little nephew who will be visiting soon.  For the past few years, we've had a car seat for him that we kept down here.  For awhile, I kept it in the car, for reasons that weren't quite clear to me.  Did I like being reminded of him every time I came to the car?  Was it a pain in the butt to install in the car?  Did I like being seen as a woman young enough to have a small child?  Was it easier to store it in the car than the house?


So, I contacted a woman on Craig's List and agreed to meet her in the Lowe's parking lot.  In some ways, you could see that as a risk, but it felt safe to me.  She wasn't likely to show up with a gun and rob me in broad daylight.

And I worried that I wasn't exactly sure what I was buying, but I decided to trust the box.  When I got home, it did appear to have been unopened.

--And then, of course, my spouse and I had a bit of a laugh at the memory of the cars of our young childhoods, where our parents just had us clamber in the back seats, back seats that often had no seat belts.  For years, my parents had a 67 VW bug, an unsafe car if ever there was one.  Yet we survived just fine.

Still, I don't want to go back to those less safe days.  Let there be safety statements in our nation's churches, let there be car safety seats for our infants.  Let there be brave writers who go undercover to expose evil.  Let there be brave mothers who walk across a country to save their babies and then are brave enough to tell the tale.  Let there be emergency preparedness that we may never fully need.

On this day, decades ago, Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.  It's a good day to think about our own dreams, both for our little children and for our larger society.  We change the planet just by existing upon it, so we might as well try to change it for the better.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hunker Down in Solidarity!

We have a sunny, hot day in store--very different from what the rest of the East Coast will be experiencing.

I feel an odd envy, similar to what I feel when a big blizzard sweeps through the north.  Even though I know that lots of people will not be having fun as trees crash to the ground and power goes off, I miss that feeling of having to relax and stay in the house.

On a similar note, I love being up very early in the morning.  People ask me, "How can you stand to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning?"  There's a peacefulness to that early hour.  Most stores are closed, and no one will be calling me.  The world is sound asleep, but I'm blazing with energy--and there's nothing to distract me from my writing desk.  I can't do the grocery shopping, and I don't want to disturb my sleeping spouse by doing household chores.

Maybe I'll have a pretend hurricane day.  It's a strange time when my sister in inland Maryland is facing a worse hurricane than I am--not to mention New York City being under hurricane warning.

My sister plans to make pizza and watch movies--at least until the power goes out.

So, in solidarity with her, I, too, will make pizza and watch movies.  I've gotten some writing tasks done, and perhaps I'll do more.  Maybe I'll read.  Maybe I'll take a nap.  Maybe 2 naps!

Since I'm not really facing a hurricane, I won't fill up the bathtub with water.  If you're hunkering down for real, don't forget to fill up your bathtub and any empty container you've got.  You may think you won't lose water, but as trees come crashing down, the roots can rip out water lines as they come up.  If you lose water, you will need more water than you think you will.

If you do nothing else, get out your flashlights and candles before the power goes out.  Most of us keep our storm supplies in closets, closets which will be dark when the power goes out.

Yes, it's a good day to hunker down.  The week-end before Labor Day--a good time to think about Autumn, and all we hope to accomplish.  Make a list so you'll remember.  It's a good time to sort through closets.  Go ahead and get rid of all those clothes you haven't worn in the past few years.

Or maybe that's too energetic for you.  It's a good day to hibernate, to store up our energies for what's to come.  I've been feeling peaked this week.  In a way, it makes sense.  I've spent the summer working out very hard.  It's been a tough time at work.  The heat is getting to me now.  I have that scratchy throat feeling that's telling me that germs are trying to establish a foothold.

Listening to my body or listening to my laziness?  Hunkering down or rejuvenating? 

Here's hoping that Irene is not as bad as we expect.  Here's hoping that we all emerge blinking into Monday sunlight, saying, "I needed that rest."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Creative Responses to Awe(Terror?)-Inspiring Storms

We have dodged a bullet, as they say, down here at the tip of the U.S.  I spent the day marvelling that a category 3 hurricane was just to our east, and yet, our weather wasn't too terrible.  We had a few periods of intense, wind-driven rain, but we've had worse in thunderstorms.

I fear the rest of the East Coast will not be so lucky.  What a terrifying storm.

As a poet/writer/artist, I've always found these storms inspirational.  I know that I'm not the only one.  We had a local quilt show once, and after our disastrous hurricane season of 2005, the quilt show challenge was to create a quilt with hurricanes as theme.  We were given two swatches of material that we had to use, along with a variety of requirements (I seem to remember being required to use two buttons).

At the quilt show, I marvelled at the variety of responses.  Clearly our losses had not dampened our creativity.

I used to write more poems with hurricanes as the central image.  Lately, hurricanes aren't showing up in my poems as much.  Is that because I've used up all my ideas about them?  Have I exhausted their symbolic potential?  Or is it because I have other subjects on the brain?

For those of you wanting/needing a theological treatment, feel free to migrate to this post on my theology blog, where I wrestle with the question of praying for deliverance from hurricanes.

For those of you on the East Coast who aren't used to preparing for hurricanes, here's my advice for you:  should you lose water, you will need more water than you think you will.  You may be thinking of canned goods, but you probably have enough food, and besides, if you lose power, you'll need to eat all the stuff in the fridge and freezer.  No, you'll need water.  Fill the bathtub(s), and if you have doubt about the quality of your bathtub stopper, wrap it in plumber's tape.  Fill every container you've got.  If you lose water, conserve, conserve, conserve.  Flush only once or twice a day.  Let the kids and the males pee in the yard. 

For those of you saying, "Yuck, now she's really crossed the line with this talk of urinating on the lawn," let's turn our attention to poetry.  Here's a poem to remind you that even if you suffer in the hurricane aftermath, you may have happy memories in the end.  It appears in my new chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents.

Land of the Lost

Several decades ago, we bought
backpacking equipment with an eye
towards future years and yeastier finances
when we could afford to hike for weeks.

Post-graduate jobs and family and houses swamped
those plans. We used to love
to sleep under the stars. Now we only see
the stars when a major storm
extinguishes the electricity.
The boots bought to protect
our feet as we traversed a continent
now shield our soles as we clear
away downed trees.

We eat our campstove-cooked
meals around a table lit with candles.
We eat the last of our defrosted
meats salvaged from our dripping freezer.
The children view this event as a treat, a holiday,
a taste of a world lost to them.
The girls pretend they’re pioneers on a prairie,
while their brother declares himself an Indian brave.

And our family, who had become so fragmented
that our only time to eat together was in the car,
we sit and eat and talk about nothing consequential.
With electronics silenced, we listen to the birds signal
their readiness for sleep. We watch
the sun sink towards the sea. The children,
who usually must be coerced to load the dishwasher,
fight over who gets to wash
the dishes in the grill-warmed water.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Swirls in the Atmosphere; Meteorologist Dreams

It's very strange to have a category 3 hurricane so close to us, yet no watches or warnings, and not even very much rain yet.  I think some of the outermost band is over us.

I just got back from the beach, where I did a jog/walk/lean kind of exercise.  My skin should be very soft, since I've had a spa-like sand abrasion.

I can see the atmosphere swirling as I look to the sky--a literal swirling.  The only time I felt fear this morning was as a band of dark clouds moved over me, and I felt a current of very cold air, as if someone had left the door to the refrigerator open.  I thought, I may have miscalculated this morning's weather.

But I made it back to the car with very little rain falling on me.  Again, very strange to have such a huge storm nearby with so little rain making it to us.

I feel a thrill, watching weather as it happens.  This morning, I thought, maybe I should be a meteorologist!  But that's probably a bum dream too--lots of budget cuts there.  And I would need many years of school.  No, I'll continue with the family trade of amateur meteorology.  My grandmother has always watched the weather religiously, as do her children, and this grandchild.  I've always wondered if that trait comes out of her farming background, where those swirls in the atmosphere spelled success or doom for the family finances.

Not surprisingly, weather finds its way into my poems.  If you find yourself writing about weather, check out Leslie's post where she tells us about some journals planning issues based on weather.

I remember our first hurricane watch down here, where I watched the clouds curling through the sky.  I've lived near the coast before, in Charleston, SC, but I never saw the atmosphere snaking around itself in quite the same way.

That was a year of many storms (1998):  Georges and Mitch seemed most ominous.  We got free tickets to a Marlins game because one of my spouse's coworkers had season tickets, but when one of the hurricane watches changed to a warning, they decided to stay home and board up the windows instead.  We had great seats, seats we never would have afforded on our own.  We sat near a woman from Houston who couldn't decide whether or not to worry about the storm.  We told her not to worry.  When I caught one of the baseballs, I gave it to her.

I say caught, but the baseball really just fell on me.  It's not like I have any skill in catching baseballs.

In a much earlier year, we were in Jacksonville for the Jazz Festival when a hurricane threatening North Carolina sent magnificent waves our way.  We battled the surf for about an hour before calling it quits.

More people die during U.S. hurricanes from drowning because of rip tides than any other reason.  It's foolish to go into the surf.  Back then, we were young and stupid.  Now, I stay out of the water.

One year (1999 or 2000), we had a category 1 storm blow up out of nowhere.  It developed so quickly it didn't even get a name.  We lost a tree to that one.  We spent the night hearing the branches go thunk, thunk, thunk.  The head of the tree removal crew had "I AM BECOME DEATH" tatooed across the top of his back.  On that same day, from the gay guys' apartment complex on the next street, I could hear disco music, The Village People and Donna Summer, in an endless loop, interrupted by the buzzing chain saws from the tree crew.  Very surreal.

Hurricanes make normal life a bit surreal.  In some ways, that's why I like a weather disruption--it takes me out of my normal routine.  I don't regularly spend a lot of time staring at the sky.  Hurricanes remind me of why I like to do that and why I should do it more often, even if I'm not a meteorologist. 

I much prefer hurricanes that only wink at us as they hurry on by.  I'm glad we're not dealing with impact.  But even the aftermath of a hurricane, with all its disruptions, makes me cherish regular life again.  After our disastrous hurricane season of 2005, I savored my coffee each and every morning.  Even more, I felt intense gratitude for the ability to heat up that cooled cup of coffee in the microwave.

If you're further up the coast, good luck with the storm prep.  Add extra lines to the boat.  You're going to need them.  Start making ice.  Get the fridge good and cold now.  Fill up the gas tanks.  Do it now, before the spirit of chaos takes over.

(a nod to Sandy, who inspired part of the title of this post, with this post of hers)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Which Horseman Are You?

Yesterday, as I was obsessively checking the progress of the nearly-stationary hurricane Irene, I started hearing about an earthquake in Virginia.

Virginia?  And it seemed relatively small, yet people were feeling it in New York, in Ohio, all over the Northeast.

I started out the morning hearing about the earthquake in Colorado.  Now, I'm an educated woman, and I know that the earth is made of plates that often shift.  I lived in Charleston for years, and we were conscious of the earthquakes that the city had suffered in the nineteenth century.  I have in-laws in Memphis, and I know about the faultline there--and the nineteenth century earthquake that made church bells ring in Charleston.  I've seen the huge bolts that nineteenth century builders put in their buildings to hold them together during earthquakes.

And of course, I still have last week's ocean outing on the brain:  all those jellyfish.  My poet brain (or is it my filmmaker brain?) wants to put all these images together.

My imagination runs to apocalypse in the best of times, and each day makes me feel like I'm living in a disaster movie without realizing it.

Or maybe we're living in Old Testament times.  One of my grad school friends used to joke that living in California was like living in the Old Testament, with fires and earthquakes and typhoons.

What's next?  Locusts?  What are some of the other Old Testament plagues?  Frogs, I remember that.  And blood raining from the sky.  Yuck.

Well, in an attempt to regain some composure, I reread the Geology chapter in Natalie Angier's The Canon:  A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.  It's fascinating to read about the major tectonic plates and the minor ones, about oceanic plates and the ones that affect land.  When's the last time you thought about earth's mantle and earth's crust?

Here's a fascinating tidbit to fuel your imagination:  the mantle is like silly putty, and the crust is very thin:  ". . . accounting for less than one-half of 1 percent of Earth's mass and 1 percent of its volume" (p. 221).  It's also "the coolest part of Earth, and thus is brittle and prone to fracturing" (p. 221).  There's oceanic crusts and continental crusts.

But tectonic plates "aren't simply broken pieces of the earth's crust" (page 223).  They're deeper than that; they extend into the mantle.  Some of them are thick, some brittle, some more plastic and yielding.  And as we know, they move:  "Give a plate 100 million years, and it will have globetrotted 3,000 miles, nearly the distance between New York and London" (page 223).

So, when the earth moves under our feet, it's not necessarily a sign that the end is upon us.  We think of our planet as solid and unyielding, a hard rock in outer space, but it's not. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When a Hurricane Hovers

Is it the time of year when we have weather on the brain?  My friend has written a poetic and gorgeous meditation on monsoons, along with her observations that mangoes and watermelons and carrots taste different here.  She's from India, so now I'm curious about how those fruits taste on the other side of the planet.  She's got a poem in this post, with beautiful references to all the senses.  Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, back on this side of the planet, I cannot get Hurricane Irene off the brain.  Even yesterday, when it was far too early to be thinking about it, I kept toggling back and forth between various weather sites.  Yes, I know that the National Hurricane Center only revises storm paths and risks and such with the 11:00 report and the 5:00 report, so no need to keep going back to the NOAA site every 15 minutes.

If I had been home, I'd have probably started baking--one of my classic responses to stress, but not great for the waistline if we have a busy storm season.  Since I was at work, I reorganized shelves and reshelved volumes of poetry.

I wish I could say that I actually worked on new poems or revamped manuscripts or even sent out a packet of poems or two or three.  I did not.  Maybe today, unless the storm shifts again, and we're back in the center of the cone.

I know the water between here and the hurricane is very warm--hot in fact.  Last week, we swam in 90 degree water.  That's hurricane fuel.

It's a fairly big storm, so we'll likely feel some effects as Irene goes by.  Here's my prayer:  Please let us keep power.

What I would love:  weather severe enough that school is cancelled and there's no thought of going out to exercise or run errands.  The power stays on, so we can cook and watch movies.  It's dark and stormy, but not scary, so naps will not be out of the question.  There's time to read, time to write, time to think about Fall submissions.  We can shake our heads at the fact that Fall is upon us, even though we'll have steamy, Summer weather for at least two more months.

Dare I hope for a slow moving storm so that we can have 2 hurricane days?  Slow moving, but ultimately non-destructive . . . and while I'm wishing for ways to affect the weather, let the hurricane curve back out to sea after it's given me two days off!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

We're All Company Men Now

Last night, we watched The Company Men.  I put it in the Netflix queue about 9 months ago, when it first came out.  In the intervening time, I've begun to ponder with an increasing sense of urgency the fate of higher education and whether or not we're working in a doomed industry.

Last night, as I watched the scenes where the company people determine who will be laid off and who will be saved, I just wanted to vomit.  I felt I was seeing my future.  At my school, we face declining student numbers.  We've been hoping that the numbers will turn around before we have to make ever more painful choices.  Lately, as we look at a landscape decimated by recession and a population that has no easy access to credit anymore, we've begun to think about what happens if those numbers don't increase or if they drop further.  We've made all sorts of non-personnel cuts, like travel money and food at events kind of money.  We all know what's coming next.  Maybe enough people will retire or move before we have to make more personnel cuts.

There was a scene where one of the workers demanded to know how they were supposed to do the same amount of work or more even though they had hundreds less workers around to do the work.  Yup, a familiar conversation.  We must all do more with less.  At some point, we can't do any more with less.   At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about what is worth doing, what demands our precious resources and what we can let go of.  I'm not hearing those conversations yet, either at my individual school or as a nation.

What might I do differently, if I was Queen of Higher Ed, and everybody had to do what I said?  I'd probably look at the industries that we need, and I'd offer students full, paid education to students who would get degrees in that field.  Alas, I'd have to be Queen of All Ed, since the fields we most need students for require much more math and science than they get in pre-college education.

I'd also like us to admit that not all fields require a 4 year degree--or graduate work.  I'd like to see more of an apprentice program in many fields.  Get rid of unpaid internships and put an apprentice program in place.

Many of us bemoan the lack of manufacturing jobs, and there's a very moving scene in The Company Men where two characters are at a shipyard and the older one talks about the amazing structures that they used to build.  We don't do much of that in this country anymore.

And yet, as I zip around the Internet, I am amazed at the structures that so many of us build in cyberspace.  I listen to news stories about new advances in the sciences--like this story about the spaces between DNA--and I think about all the frontiers we've crossed in the past twenty years, even as we stopped manufacturing so much physical stuff.

I also have monasteries and other intentional communities on the brain today; it's the feast day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  Most monastic communities have thrived on the margins of their communities, many of them quietly preserving knowledge and pioneering interesting practices of all kinds as their societies self-destructed around them.  I wonder what overlooked contemporary developments later generations will exclaim over.

The ending of The Company Men is oddly hopeful, and I won't ruin it for you here.   Suffice it to say that the movie explores the idea of meaningful work and how we live lives that are integrated with our values, and it reaches some surprising conclusions.

I try to keep an upbeat attitude in these uncertain times.  I know many members of my father's generation who had job upsets in midlife, but many of those upsets led those workers to more fulfilling work, to options they wouldn't have considered unless they had to.  I know that most of us will need to reinvent ourselves numerous times, and I'm grateful that I have imagination and resources.

During our trip to Key Largo, we talked about a variety of possible directions.  I've been feeling pulled towards being a hospice chaplain and also feeling pulled towards selling everything we own and buying a sailboat.  One of my friends said, "You could be a sailing chaplain."  Now there's an intriguing idea.

When we hang out on my sister's sailboat, we hear about all sorts of entrepreneurs out there on the Chesapeake:  boats that will bring you fresh baked goods, boats that will come and empty your holding tanks, boats that will bring you gas, water, ice, beer, whatever you left on shore or ran out of.

Let's see, I have an interest in theology, an interest in creativity, and I'm fascinated at that intersection.  I've thought of buying a huge plot of land and creating a retreat center and intentional community (like Bernard of Clairvaux did!).  Could I do something similar, but smaller, on a sailboat?  Is a sailboat too small for a group of retreatents or for someone who wanted contemplative time?  Hmmm.

How about for people who wanted to explore their creativity?  Poetry Practicum off the Peninsula?  Collaging by the Coast?

There are lots of retreat centers on land.  There are lots of semester at sea type programs.  I wonder if there are any smaller, more intimate approaches to either.  Hmm.

I don't pretend to have easy answers, or answers of any kind. I expect I'll continue to explore these issues and questions here, for years to come. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Report from the Reef

I have both good news and bad news from the reef.  First, the good news:  the reef looks fairly healthy, with lots of fish of all sizes and coral that looks whole.  We have been diving when the coral has been banged up, either by careless divers or by careless boaters or by hurricanes, which take carelessness to a whole different level.

Now, for the bad news:  the seas were enswamped in jellyfish. 

In some ways, they were beautiful, translucently blue as they floated by.  They were HUGE.  I've never seen jellyfish this big.  They weren't the smaller jellyfish you find in the Chesapeake Bay this time of year.  No, these jellyfish were the size of dinner plates, large dinner plates.

After one of our dives, we had to swim through swarms of them to get to the boat.  We all got stung.  I've never had a jellyfish sting before, but they weren't as bad as I thought they'd be.  It wasn't a sharp, searing pain, but instead, the kind of buzzing irritation that I've always thought that stinging nettles would give.  We squirted our wounds with vinegar and seemed to be no worse for wear.

Jellyfish are an ominous sign for many reasons.  One is that they've never been as numerous as they have been this season.   Now that fact could mean that the currents are different, which would not have to be a big deal.  But the increase in jellyfish points to a decrease in the health of the oceans.  Jellyfish thrive in warmer waters than most creatures like, and the ocean temperatures have been breaking all records here.  You may recall that two years ago when I was diving/snorkeling, the temperature at Molasses Reef broke the previous record when it climbed to 91 degrees (I wrote about the implications here and here).  Since then, those temps have become a new normal.

Jellyfish also thrive in waters that are more acidic, and we know that the seas are becoming more acidic.  This fact means that we'll have less sea life:  to appreciate, to do their job in our interconnected world, to eat.

We can spend some time arguing about what's causing these things, but we know that warmer planet temps are the likely cause.  I've become convinced that we can't change global warming, at least not within the next few generations.  We've waited too long while the problem has accelerated far more quickly than scientists believed possible.

I have no doubt that humans will adapt, unless we're part of the great Holocene Extinction currently underway.  As one commentator said during an NPR show on global warming, at some point the planet will cool and people who have never seen the Arctic covered with ice will feel just as panicked when ice retakes the region as we're feeling now at the prospect of the Arctic with less ice.

What to do in the meantime?  I should dive more often, while there are still reefs and undersea vistas to enjoy.

And for you culinarians out there, start developing your jellyfish recipes--I predict abundant harvests for decades to come!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Children of Scientists

I'm off for a day trip to the coral reefs off Key Largo.  Part of it is business:  I'm going with a class field trip to write up an observation.  Part of it is pleasure:  I want to see these places, and return to them, while they're still here.  The oceans are both heating and acidifying, which will kill the coral reefs, probably within the next few decades.

I'll swim and observe and pretend I'm a scientist.  Maybe I'm glad I'm not an oceanographer or a marine biologist; I'd hate seeing the destruction of habitat.

I have scientists, and the children of scientists, on the brain lately.  Dave Bonta has interviewed both of his parents, naturalists of the best sorts, who have lived on a plot of land, improving it and observing it and taking care of it, for 40 years (interview with Dave's dad here, Dave's mom here).   Those interviews make me yearn for a plot of land of my own, for a place to sink deep roots.  Dave's mom has also had a writing career, and her interview has interesting background on how she moved into writing.  Both interviews also give intriguing insight into a successful marriage.

Jeannine Hall Gailey has been thinking about scientist's daughters, both in this post and in her poems.  She says, "Tracy K. Smith’s story about writing Life on Mars had a few familiar aspects: she was born a year before me, her father was a scientist (an optical engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope instead of a robotics engineer) and she takes aspects of mythology and science and applies them to autobiography in some interesting ways. It made me think about women poets whose fathers were scientists, including: Rachel Dacus, whose 'rocket kids' blog was named after her adventures as the daughter of an actual rocket scientist; Margaret Atwood, who was the daughter of a biologist; Louise Gluck, whose father invented the X-acto knife you might have worked with in science lab or art classes. And Tracy K. Smith. And me. Are there more? Is there something about being a scientist’s daughter that drives us into poetry?"

As I read her post, pieces of my own life clicked.  I'm a scientist's daughter!  I think of a scientist as someone who goes diving into the deep or who spends life observing a land mass.  But my dad is a computer scientist, back from the day when if you wanted a program for a computer, you had to write it yourself.  I remember seeing punch cards at his office and thinking about the computer that spoke in this strange language of holes.  My dad brought used paper, with holes on the edges and perforated seams from the days of dot matrix printers, home for us.  I created countless pictures on the back of this green and yellow paper, which could be as sprawling or compact as I wanted.

My dad helped me with the science fair project that won us honorable mention--or was it 3rd place?--in the 8th grade science fair. My exhibit talked about vacuum tubes and transistors and the microchip.  My dad loaned me a microchip, way back in 1979, which we mounted to a board with a magnifying glass so that people could see how the computer communicated information.  Little did I realize how much that microchip would transform my life and all our lives.

When I'm swimming around the Atlantic today, I'll ponder Jeannine's question:  is there something about being the child of a scientist that drives us to poetry?

If you want to see some of Jeannine's responses to this question, a great starting place is the Escape Into Life posting that pairs some of her poems with some fabulous art.  Kathleen Kirk, the poetry editor, has a magical ability to find the perfect art to go with the perfect poem--I don't know how she does it, but I'm always in awe of her talent.  Is she the daughter of a scientist?  Could that explain her ability to join disparate elements into a cohesive whole?  Or is that simply the way her artist's brain works?

Whatever the answer, I'm grateful for the work of Dave Bonta, Jeannine Hall Gailey, and Kathleen Kirk.  They inspire me to more careful observation and to making more interesting connections.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Happy Birthday to the CD

On this day, in 1982, the first CDs for commercial release were manufactured.  At first, they were solely for storing music, and later, they were rejiggered to store data.  Until recently, we'd have all been acclaiming how the CD had changed our lives, but along came other means, smaller means, of data storage, and our lives have changed again.

I remember moving boxes of vinyl records and wishing I had a CD player.  And then, I got one, and was faced with the question that seems to be eternal for me:  stay with older technology or try to replace all that vinyl?  It's a question I still haven't settled, as each new wave of technology crashes on my head.

I was thinking about the issue of technology the other day as a colleague decried the use of cellphones and how everyone is texting now and not paying attention to the humans around them.  I spent the rest of the day wondering about which technology I adopted in my youth that drove my elders crazy.

Would it have been the Sony Walkman?  I plugged in and tuned out in much the same way that people of today do with their smartphones.

This summer seems to be the season of references to the Sony Walkman.  In Super 8, the sheriff sees the Sony Walkman as the beginning of the downfall of Western civilization.  I loved this post in the memorable/meaningful records series that Charles Jensen just finished.  In a post about a Neil Diamond record, Julie E. Bloemeke meditates on the way the Sony Walkman changes her life:  "When Christmas 1986 arrived, everything changed. I unwrapped my first Walkman, not realizing then how my experience of listening to music would forever alter. I would no longer compete for sound space; I would no longer pick up and drop the needle over this song and that. Instead, listening would become about the trajectory of the album, the journey of following an emotion from one song to the next. And, with headphones, with a cassette, I realized I could drown out the voices in the front seat, the television in the other room. I could take my music on a walk, into my bed. I could take Neil with me wherever I went: his lyrics, his voice, his guitar."

I've spent the summer (and the seasons before it) thinking about technology and the way it has reshaped so many career paths.  We seem to be on some kind of collision course in the world of higher education, and it's unclear to me how it will all shake out.  Will we see a world where only a few of us are teaching courses to students across the country?  Will we see push back and a demand for face time by students who now pay a lot of money to come to college?  Will we even recognize the college classroom of 10 years from now?  I have no idea.

The twentieth century reminded us again and again that the same technology bestows gifts and curses alike.  As I think about the CD, I see more gifts and fewer curses.  So, happy birthday, CD technology!  Will we ever look back on you with the same kind of nostalgia that vinyl LPs inspire?  Oh yes, some of us already do.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In Praise of Repertory Theatre and University Drama Departments

Bookgirl has a wonderful post about summer theatre, in her case, Shakespeare by the Sea, which makes her feel like she both lives in a major city and lives by the sea.  Actually, it takes her a drive of at least 85 minutes to get to the festive event.  I admire her spirit in making the outing an event, complete with picnic (or stop at a Hungarian bakery, if there's no time for a picnic).  This year, she brought her children, and I loved watching her children discover live theatre as I read her piece.

I've been lucky to be part of a family that nurtured our love of all sorts of performing arts, including theatre.  I still don't understand how my parents lived on one salary and afforded all the cultural events we afforded.

Of course, not all cultural events have to be expensive, do they?  It's not like we were seeing Broadway shows every week-end.  No, when we saw Broadway shows, those were the big events that usually required a trip to a different city, like Atlanta or Washington D.C.  My childhood/adolescence was back in the days when touring Broadway companies didn't come to every midsize towns, just the big ones.  Now it's different.

I remember summer as a time of repertory theatre.  I remember the University of Virginia's theatre and performing arts department presenting at least 4 plays every summer.  What a treat to go to each play and to remember the actors from their other roles.

Going out to a show felt festive.  I loved the play.  I loved the fact that we went out for frozen yogurt or ice cream afterward.  I loved that it was warm and we stayed up late and the small towns of my childhood had a different summer vibe.

I remember going to see plays at the university during the school year too, but usually as a school field trip.  When I was in high school in Knoxville Tennessee, we often went to see drama productions put on by the University of Tennessee's drama department.  We saw Shakespeare and Greek plays.  I still remember Medea with its electrifying end--it was no less electrifying for being performed by college actors.

We saw these plays for an amazingly low price, something along the lines of $5 a ticket.  Wow.  What a service the university drama department did.  I hope that they still are.

It was a symbiotic relationship.  The area schools were a built-in audience, and schools could shape their curriculum around the plays that would be presented during the school year, which they did.  It was great to study a play and then to go see it performed.

We traveled to the University of Tennessee auditoriums in big, yellow schoolbusses, but I've also heard of drama departments that travelled to area schools, another great idea.  I've also seen many examples of singing groups--some of them huge in number--who tour and travel and build up good will for universities and colleges.

I haven't heard as much about poets and writers doing similar things in huge numbers.  I know that some states sponsor Poets in the Schools kind of programs--or they did, before our current economic crisis. 

But wouldn't it be fun to do this in a more concerted, concentrated way?  We could build travelling troupes of different kinds of poets, so students would be exposed to formalist poets, experimental poets, slam poets, people who did intriguing hybrid things with their poems.  Should I ever be poet laureate, maybe that's the program I'll create.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lessons from Yahtzee and Other Childhood Games

A few days ago, my spouse and I didn't have time to do anything time intensive, like going kayaaking.  But we did have a bit of time, and we wanted to do something more than watch T.V. together.  So, we pulled out Yahtzee and played a few rounds.

Playing board/dice games always takes me back to various moments.  Of course, some part of me is back in childhood, crouched on a cold concrete garage floor playing the game or some sultry summer day trying to stave off boredom and heatstroke by stretching out the playing time.

And some part of me is back in graduate school when my spouse and I first discovered how cheap board games were (thank you Wal-Mart), and we started buying them--first for the nostalgia value and then because they were really fun to play.  And maybe we just hung out with weird people, but we found out that our friends really liked playing these games too.  We were on limited budgets back in grad school days, so having cheap entertainment, like a board game, helped immensely.

As we were playing Yahtzee, my spouse and I talked about how we learned to gamble.  Do you hold out for Yahtzee, even though it's not likely, or do you enter a zero in that column early, in the hopes that your 4 of a kind spot gets you a few more points?

That conversation took me back to a year at the beach, where my dad set up a kind of casino for me, my sister, and my cousins.  O.K., it wasn't a casino, but only one game, Klondike (you play it all the time--it's solitaire).  We paid my dad 50 cents to play, and he'd pay us a nickel for every card that made it's way into the piles that you build at the top of the card run.  It sounded like such an easy way to make money!  We lost so much money!  And my dad, wanting to teach us a lesson about gambling perhaps, did not give that money back.

I am now that obnoxious person who doesn't gamble or even buy lottery tickets.  And I'm sure that I can trace that attitude back to that hot week at the beach, playing Klondike and giving quarters to my dad.

And this line of thinking takes me back to Monopoly.  My strategy for that game is to try to buy up all the cheap properties.  Someone else can have Broadwalk.  Give me the low rent district just around the corner from Broadwalk.  I've won many a game with this strategy.  And if you look at my history of home ownership, you'll see that lesson followed me into adulthood.  My spouse would buy even more cheap properties, if we had more money to invest.

If you want to hear other people talk about their experience with a variety of board games, go to this podcast.  I love the whole show, which talks about ways to deal with summer heat, but about 20 minutes in, the group talks about board games.  The discussion of the game of Life took me back.  Ah, those happy summer days, with plastic cars and little sticks that represented people.  One of my friends loved to stuff her car with more children than the car could hold.  But that game did teach us that children are expensive.  It also taught us that delayed gratification (by going to college instead of getting a job) would pay off in the end.

I wonder what kind of games we'd make up about life now.  Would the lessons be different?

Of course, we played plenty of games with no lessons, overt and otherwise.  I remember games like Sorry, games where the objective was to get all your pieces into a final spot safely and first (maybe the lessons were there, but I just didn't see them).

Even today, with video games and other distractions, I've noticed that people still love these old-fashioned games.  Even my friends who play Scrabble electronically love an old-fashioned game played face-to-face.  And an evening spent playing cards offers all sorts of pleasures that we don't often get in other ways.  I think of my grandparents who spent many years playing Bolivia, which was a variation of Canasta.  I think of our family vacations at Myrtle Beach, where after a long day of fun in the sun (and losing money to my dad at Klondike), we'd set up card tables and play Bolivia.  I can't remember how to play, but I remember how much fun we had.

I'm glad that we can still amuse ourselves, even if the electricity goes out.  I'm glad that these games are still being manufactured (although sometimes in vastly different forms--the game of Life sounds very different now).  I'm glad that I have friends and family who are still willing to play.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

My Chapbook Finally Arrives!

Originally, my chapbooks were supposed to ship July 8, but there were delays at the printers.  Yesterday, 10 months after first hearing that my manuscript had been accepted, the books arrived!

Happily that crunched corner did not translate to damaged books.

The picture below works as a metaphor for the whole process.  All along, I've had some idea about how the finished book would look, but it's been an idea wrapped in tissue paper, a book I can almost see, but can't quite.

And then, the books are unwrapped, and I can exhale.  They're beautiful, as books-as-artifacts go.  I'll be happy to have them join chapbook #1, Whistling Past the Graveyard, which I had far less creative control over in terms of design, but which also made me happy.

If you ordered a book, it should be on its way to you.  I'll be interested to hear what you think. 

And if you're wishing you had ordered a book, you can still order one from the publisher, from Amazon (eventually), or from me!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Anniversary Thoughts

On this day in 1988, at 11:00 a.m., my college sweetheart and I married each other.  We got married in Greenwood, South Carolina, in the same church where my parents got married and where my grandfather had been pastor for several decades before he retired--my parents will be celebrating their 50th anniversary in October 2012.  We chose an early wedding time because we had family and friends who would be facing a long drive after our wedding.  We had the reception in the church fellowship hall.

After a quick honeymoon in Asheville, it was back to grad school.  In some ways, our lives didn't change much.  In some ways, our lives would never be the same.

Most couples can probably say the same thing.  They can probably point to storms weathered and unpleasant truths discovered.  They can probably point to support, both expected and unexpected.  They can probably talk about changes, both important and unimportant.

As I look back, I'm somewhat amazed at how young we were.  I had just turned 23, and he would be 24 in September.  Did we know what we were getting into?  Does anyone ever?

As I look back at our wedding, and I think about weddings now, I'm amazed at what a beautiful wedding we had for such a tiny sum of money (less than $1000).  Part of it was my insistence that the wedding not cost much, coupled with my mom's desire for a beautiful day.  Part of it was that we were married in a small town church, where we didn't have to rent a hall or pay huge costs for a meal or incur the costs that come with alcohol.

That was such a long time ago that we haven't even digitized those pictures.  So, I can't share the picture of my grandmother ironing my wedding dress.  You can't see my face as I sipped the champagne that my parents had bought when they were stationed in France and saved for their daughter's wedding.  Champagne was not meant to be aged for 23 years!  You can't look at pictures of all of us as very young people.

Once, a dinner guest looked at our wedding pictures and said, "Look, pictures from your first marriage."

In some ways, it feels that way:  we're both older now, so different.  And yet, we're still so much the same.

If I could travel back in time, what would I tell those crazy kids?  I'd say, "Go ahead.  Get married.  Make that commitment in front of God, your family, and your friends.  You'll make some sacrifices, but it's better to go through life with a supportive person by your side than to be out there alone."

I know that I've been lucky.  We've been through some hard times, but they could have been worse.  I've been lucky in that I'm allowed to marry the one I love with the benefits that come from that.  We've been lucky in that one of us has always been fully employed, even if we've rarely both been fully employed at the same time.  I'm lucky in that we both have simple wants and needs.  Our marriage would not have survived if one of us had been the type of person who got our self-worth from having more and more expensive stuff.  I'm lucky in that we've both changed, but not in directions that made continued marriage impossible.

I'm hoping for another 23 years of luck and love.  I'm hoping for love for us all in these difficult times, in whatever form(s) we'd like that love to take.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summer Self-Improvement and Strong Foundations for the Future

My work life is a microcosm of the national news cycle.  We think we've gotten bad news, and then we recover a bit, and then we get even worse news.  It's very exhausting, and it has everyone talking worst case scenarios.  But the truth is probably this:  we will survive, in spite of shrinking student population and legislation that means we have to do things differently. 

We're like those folks who go to horror movies:  we like to scare ourselves silly.

Careful readers of this blog will know that I vacillate between being the ultimate Apocalypse Gal and the Wide Eyed Optimist.  So, today, I will focus on this summer of my self-improvement and what it means for our writing lives, and I'll give a nod to our new Poet Laureate.

This morning I saw a weight on the scale that I haven't seen since 2006, a weight that is 25 pounds less than I weighed this time last summer.  Of course, I saw this weight after I lost about 4 pounds running, pounds that I expect I've already regained through drinking homemade veggie juice, a berry smoothie, and coffee.  I've shaved 5-10 minutes off my running time in just two months.  I'm drinking that coffee with half the milk I used to pour in, and almost no sugar (I used to use 1-2 Tablespoons of sugar per big mug).

In short, I've made lots of self-improvement this summer.  When I look back and wonder why I made so little writing progress during the summer of 2011 (as, say, opposed to the summer of 1999, which was a magical, rainy summer of writing), I need to remember that I was working in a different arena of self-improvement.

How did I lose the weight?  The old-fashioned way, by tracking what I ate and by exercising more.  I also enrolled in a competition at my wellness center, and I've been trying really hard to win.  I've been engaging in fantasies about being the woman who pulls the team to victory.  It's very inspiring.

What can this summer of my self-improvement in terms of healthy eating and exercise and weight loss teach me when it comes to our creative lives?  Let me see.

--It helps to have a firm foundation. 

I've made more progress than some people, and I think it's because I already had a fairly firm foundation.  I like fruits and vegetables.  I don't eat fast foods.  I don't drink soda.  I was already exercising 4-6 days a week.  I just needed to make some adjustments, and I was on my way.

Similarly, many of us who have been creative probably have some good habits.  We may have fallen astray, but we remember what to do.  I've written about this before here, but it bears repeating.  Every so often, we should take time to recalibrate and to make sure we're on the proper trajectory.

If we're not, we probably know what to do, whether it's limiting our Internet time or forcing ourselves to send out 3 submissions a week or doing one little act every day that honors our creative selves.  We just need the fortitude to do it.

--Our muse will be there waiting for us when we return.

Whenever I gain weight, I feel a bit of terror.  I wonder if I'll ever lose it.  Some years are better for weight loss than others, of course.  Some months, weight loss is not my priority.  Some months, I'm just trying to hang on.

Similarly with our creative endeavors, we can take a break if we need to.  Some months, our priorities must shift.  But our creative muscles remember, just like our leg muscles remember.  We just need to limber them back up again.

--If we don't have a firm foundation, it's not too late to start.

As part of my program this summer, I had 2 sessions with a nutritionist.  I would have thought she could teach me nothing.  What a fool I was.  Similarly with my work out sessions with trainers, I learned more than I thought I would.  If I had no background in nutrition or exercise, I imagine these sessions would have been even more valuable.

You may be thinking that you've waited too long to follow your creative dreams.  You have not.  You are surrounded by experts who will be happy to share their knowledge of how to get started.  But really, it's fairly simple.  Think back to what you loved as a child.  Start there.  Or think about what you love now.  What kind of artist do you want to be?  Read the blogs of those artists.  Read their work (or view/taste/hear their creations).  Read their interviews.  Emulate them.

--Write things down

I've been keeping an exercise log since I started running way back in 1980.  But I haven't kept a food log or written down my daily calorie count.  I think one of the reasons why I've been so successful this summer is that I've strictly kept track of calories.  I kept a food log because it was part of the program.  And it worked.

I've found that writing things down helps me in my creative life too.  Careful readers of this blog may have noticed that I write down my creative goals, and then, periodically, I check back in to see how I'm doing.  It's amazingly effective.

--Dream the Impossible

When I started this summer of my self-improvement, I had high hopes, but I wondered if I wasn't dreaming a little too big.  Nonsense.  Dream big.

This idea brings me back to the Poet Laureate.  When anyone asks me my dream job, I say, "Poet Laureate."

Actually, my dream job is to be a Supreme Court Justice, since that's a lifetime appointment.

But if I dream of being Poet Laureate, I can do things now to prepare.  The most obvious thing to do is to keep writing poetry and keep sending poetry into the world.  But I can also think about the other part of being Poet Laureate.

All that is required of the Poet Laureate is to give a reading at the beginning and at the end of one's term.  But we all know that most poet laureates have done far, far more.  Think of Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, a nationwide event that alerted many of us that the nation still loves poetry.  I wonder what Philip Levine will do.

What would you do as Poet Laureate?  What dreams would you have for the poetic future of the nation? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

From Castaway to Fountain: A Photo Essay

I've written about my summer fountain project and the lessons learned from it here.  Before summer ends, let me post some pictures.

The fountain's base is an old concrete sink.  We created the rest of it from terra cotta pots that once held dying/dead plants.  Here's one of them, a before picture, if you will.

We did mosaic work.  What fun to play with glass!

 I like the frosted cake look at this point in the process, but you still need to grout, both to solidify the mosaic project and to make it more waterproof.  With grout, you're literally cementing the whole thing together.  Otherwise, it's just adhesive, and not as permanent.

 We could have gone out to buy white grout and stuck with the frosted cake look.  But we had charcoal colored grout left over from a different project, so we went with that.  The pictures don't show this aspect of our project as well, but the charcoal grout makes the glass glow more than it did when backed in white.

In the above picture, you can see the three flowerpots that we used.

Above, a picture of the sink before the project.

Above, a picture of the final fountain (unless we mosaic the inside).  Again, a picture doesn't do justice.  I wish you could all see it when the sun shines on it--it shines in amazing ways.  I wish we could all join together on my patio (which would be amazingly weed-free for our soiree).  We'd read and write poetry and drink wine and cheese, while the fountain burbled in the background.

In my imagination, we'd all stay cool and comfortable, despite the fact that we've reached the time when the temperature doesn't drop much below 85 degrees, even at night.  In my imagination, I have the perfect patio furniture.  In my imagination, the neighborhood has been magically made quiet so we can hear ourselves think.  In my imagination, the wine and cheese--and let's throw in some amazing bread--contains no calories.

Ah, my imagination! 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How to Pack a Book Box, and Other Skills My Family Taught Me

My parents are moving, and they've spent the last month packing.  Their experience has made me think about packing and about the fact that we've lived in the same house since 1998.  Maybe we should pretend we're moving and start to sort through our stuff.  We have too much stuff.

Our church youth group is holding a rummage sale to help them raise funds to travel to the big youth gathering next summer.  Maybe knowing that my stuff will help the youth group have a once-in-a-lifetime experience will help me gather momentum and the courage to let go of the stuff.

I'm also thinking of the packing of boxes, and some blog posts (here and here) that I've read about books and moving.  Will the day come when we no longer pack books into boxes?  It may already be here for many people.

I think back to all the moves that my parents made when we were kids, and all the times I packed my books into boxes.  Those boxes were always the first to be unpacked.  Once I had my books on the shelves, I felt surrounded by old friends.

I remember the first time my dad showed me how to pack a book box.  Those of you with few books may scoff at the idea that there's a skill to packing a book box, but there is.  You don't want to damage the books, and you want boxes that you can stack.

I think of all the other skills my dad taught me.  Will they be obsolete soon?

Some already are.  I know how to thread a reel-to-reel tape machine.  Of course, I no longer have access to that equipment, and I imagine that most people don't.  I have no reel-to-reel tapes.  It's O.K.

I know how to safely train myself to run longer distances.   I know how to break in a new pair of running shoes.  I return to those skills, first taught by my dad, again and again.

I think of all the backpacking skills my father taught me.  Or did the Girl Scouts teach me more?  I learned how to pack light, and how to estimate what I could carry on my back.  I learned how to wash out dishes with sand and river water.  I can make a tasty trail mix.  I know several ways to disinfect water.

I'm trying not to veer into the land of apocalypse here.  I'm trying not to think of the future as a time when backpacking skills will be more valuable than box packing skills.

I wonder if the time will soon be approaching that I'll wish I had paid more attention to the skills my grandma could have taught me:  how to weather a great Depression.  My grandmother has saved a letter that the seminary sent to my grandfather.  The letter told him that he was accepted into the seminary, but that he might consider staying on the farm, where at least there would be food.

My grandfather went to seminary, and even though there were many years where he didn't earn much cash, the family survived.  I am amazed at the stories my grandmother used to tell about how tough it was at times.  But even though it was tough, they still shared what they had.  My grandmother loved to tell the story of tramps that came to the door.  My grandfather would never give away money--too much danger that it would be spent on the wrong things, like alcohol.  But he'd fix a tramp a fried egg sandwich and sit on the stairs to keep the man company while he ate.

Now I look back with the eyes of adulthood, and I see that my grandfather was sharing scarce resources.  But once again, I'm reminded of the most important lessons that my family taught me, generation after generation:  you're never too poor to share your resources, no matter how scarce they may be.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ways to Use Your Drama Training

At the poetry reading the other day, I thought once again about how many ways I use the training that I first got in drama class:  how to project my voice, how to take on a persona, how to vary my voice, how to pace myself.  It's also interesting how some of that training no longer matters.  We spent a lot of time as youthful aspiring theatre people projecting our voice to the back of the theatre; now, opera singers are the only ones who don't use tiny microphones.

Long ago, I was a drama major. I’ve had many occasions to think about how what I learned as a drama major has come in handy later, even though I didn’t continue with my original plan to take Broadway by storm. I’ve written about the ways that being a drama geek prepared me for both teaching life and my creative life (most notably here).

It’s interesting to me to reflect on how the training has come in handy, even in smaller ways. I went to a lecture on emotional eating recently. The psychologists leading the session talked about other ways to calm ourselves, including focusing on our breathing. One of the psychologists noted that my hand went to my stomach, as I practiced the deep breathing that I first learned to do during drama lessons, then as a distance runner, and later in yoga classes.

Several of the women in the emotional eating session with me couldn’t get the hang of belly breathing. “I can’t get my stomach to go out when I breathe in,” one of them said. But it’s a process that comes naturally to me.

I’ve been thinking about ways we might need to reinvent ourselves, whether it be by the ways we comfort ourselves or the ways we earn money. I heard this story on NPR which included a segment about an unemployed computer networker who started a singing telegram business. He’s got twelve characters (think Elvis), and he shows up with balloons and a card and a song.

I thought, well, there’s a way to use your drama and voice lessons.

When I was younger, I thought of all the ways that training might translate into money. Now I’m more intrigued by all the ways that training of all sorts can help us in ways that we can’t have anticipated when we started. Does this recycling and renovating of training come more naturally to creative types? Or do we just need to get desperate enough to give our training new applications? As with so many of the either-or questions that I pose, the answer probably is yes and no to both. There’s a whole spectrum there, not just one set of choices.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Poetry Reading at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale

I was lucky to be part of a great poetry reading yesterday at the Books and Books location in the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.  I've read with the two other poets before, and once again, I was happy to reflect on how well we fit together.

When we first got there, we had some debate about how to set up.  We decided to have the chairs face a landing, where we would read.  I read first.

The pictures make the art hanging on the wall much more vivid than they seemed in real life, when I was part of the audience watching my fellow poets.  Most of the pictures that we took showed the humans in dim light, overshadowed by the art.  I like these photos, but I'm not sure they adequately capture the scene.  Ah well.

I read a mix of poems from my first chapbook and from the forthcoming chapbook.  I read well--no stumbling, and I tried to remember to read more slowly than I usually do.  The audience was receptive.

Here are the three of us answering questions at the end and below, the bookstore manager who was kind enough to arrange everything.  The audience asked insightful questions.  They were such a great audience:  attentive, appreciative, insightful--and willing to come to us despite torrential rains in some parts of the county.

We read to an audience of 50--wow!  About 15 of them came from our school, about 10 were connected to the other two poets as family/friends.  Who were the others?  Whoever they were, they were wonderful.

We've got another poetry reading on October 20 at a children's theatre--hopefully we can do something with a Halloween theme.  I have a vision for a holiday reading, where maybe we'd sell books for people looking for interesting gifts.  Plus, it could be a neat reading:  I'm a Lutheran, one poet is Hindu, and the other is Jewish.  If we read holiday themed poetry, how interestingly multicultured that could be.  I'll start working on that.

I may have a recording of the poetry reading coming soon--one of our friends recorded us.  In the meantime, here's a poem from my forthcoming chapbook that I read.  And if you want a copy of that forthcoming chapbook, let me know; they should be here soon.

Penelope Plans a Play Date

Before motherhood, she had a more inspired brain.
It contemplated fractals and the tiny quark.
But thinking of those days just brings her pain.
Her intellect has gone dim and dark.

Now she maps out schedules of each play date.
She associates with mothers dull and mean.
She tries to accept it as her fate
to talk about ways to keep house and laundry clean.

She once saw her Ph.D. as a shield
to keep her safe from hearth and home.
Eventually she had to yield.
Her baby gave her life a different tone.

But when she thinks of returning to her career,
She reads to her child, determined to find happiness right here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Planning a Poetry Reading on the Day After the World Ends

So, while a group of us celebrated a friend's completion of her Ed.D. degree, and then I slept peacefully through the night, the S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating. I read the news this morning, and I thought, well, we've heard these rumblings with their apocalyptic overtones for several weeks now. And one of the worst case scenarios has happened.

I almost expected to see smoking ruins when I looked out the window this morning. But the world looks fairly normal.

I realize, of course, that when various markets across the world open beginning some time Sunday night, we might find out that we really are hurtling into the abyss.  Or maybe nothing will happen.  These days, it's hard to tell.

In the meantime, life goes on.  For those of you who are saying, "Hey, you, give us some comfort," I'd direct you to this post on my theology blog.  It contains my thoughts, some links to other great blog posts of comfort, and a poem that reminds us that times that seem like we'll remember them as the darkest may actually be high points in our life.

Or go to this post of Jeannine's to focus on the good writing news of various poets that deserve celebrating.  Hurrah for Karen J. Weyant (and her great book title, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, winner of the Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest); hurrah for Rachel Dacus who has just signed with Kitsune Books.

Or come out this afternoon to a poetry reading at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale at 4:00 p.m.  Sure, we might have the remnants of Tropical Storm Emily passing us then, but what's a little rain?  You can drink wine or excellent coffee drinks.  You can enjoy the works of 3 poets who are so similar and so different.

I'm one of those poets, and I'm still in the final planning stages of deciding what to read.  As with last time, I think I'll read a few poems from my first chapbook and a few from my second.  I only have about 12-15 minutes, so I won't be reading too many poems.

Last time I made my reading decisions based on which poems I thought were best, a time-honored way of deciding what to read.  But as much as I love some of those poems for their approach to language, their symbolism, their word play, the subject matter can be difficult.  I'm thinking of "Scout at Midlife," which returns to the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, where we discover that Atticus, he of the magnificent legal mind and moral compass, has Alzheimer's.  I could see from the faces at the reading that the poem was indeed effective--but very painful to hear.  More and more, I am surrounded by people who are watching their loved ones struggle with this disease.  As does my very own beloved grandma--her lucidity comes and goes, and I know there are times when she has no idea who I am. 

It's very strange.  For years, I thought my grandma didn't know who I was because she didn't understand me or my generation.  But she knew more than I was willing to give her credit for knowing.  And I was young, with that arrogance that comes from being 19 years old.  And now I'm older, and it's so very unsettling to be with her when she literally does not know who I am.  I can see how my poem would be hard for people who are living with that situation more closely than I am; I only see my grandmother a few times a year, if that.  As my job circumstances tighten, it's been less, as it's harder to get away.  Now is not a good time to look dispensable in the workplace.

In a week of dreadful news, in a summer of grinding disagreement, I've decided to choose my poems that are most hopeful and most humorous.  I'm not choosing lesser poems, not by any means.  But I'm keeping the subject matter upbeat.

We're surrounded by doom and gloom.  I can't watch the news at all anymore, and even National Public Radio is proving too much for me on some days.  At work, I'm surrounded by people who are convinced we're on the road to hell. At work, I'm surrounded by people who are convinced that we're already there. Very few optimistic people in my workplace these days.  And I think my workplace is a microcosm of the larger world.

And here I thought I would need to change careers to be a hospice chaplain!

Yet I can't quite shake the thought that maybe some of us are taking a bit too much delight in our gloomy moods.  I can't quite shake the feeling that we're wallowing in our pessimism.

No, I am part of several traditions that remind me of my moral duty to be a person of hope and resurrection.  You can dismiss me as a goofy Christian if you like, but I would also argue that as poets and writers, we have a duty and a calling to envision a different world, a better world.  As people who have more than other people, we have a duty to remind the world of what the world could be.  I would say that one of the great contributions that the U.S. has made to the world is the idea of a nation where we can achieve whatever we want to achieve if we just put our minds to it.

Hush.  Do not tell me that those days when anything was possible, that those days are behind us.  They are not.  Out of times of great turmoil, a better world often emerges.  The world needs change agents now more than ever.  Can poets and poems be those change agents?  Can change begin in the cradle of one poetry reading?  Am I being preposterously grandiose?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Of Stars and Ghosts and Other Otherworldly Things

I woke up this morning, rather amazed that it's August already.  Have I sent poetry packets to all the places where I hoped to submit this summer?  No I have not.

Once upon a time I chafed when summer came, and so many journals shut down.  I hated losing momentum.

Once upon a time, I would have had packets ready to go for the September submissions.

Well, those days are not these days.

Today, I am tired of thinking about practical matters, like whether or not the economy is imploding or what my next career should be or where to submit.  Today, I am inspired by the otherworldly postings of others.

I love the photos and the poems at this posting at Escape into Life.  Kathleen Kirk always creates such fascinating pairings, and this time is no exception.  I particularly love the first photo, the one which looks like a boy has captured stars with his face (even though I suspect it's glitter).

Speaking of stars, I love the astronomy information in this post.  Sherry O'Keefe talks about how stars lose their twinkle.  Naked stars without a twinkle.  I'll probably think about this all day.

Over at Dave Bonta's blog, there's a fascinating exchange about ghosts, and much of that exchange is in poem form.  Make sure to read the comment section.

So, I decided to try my hand.  I think what I have here are seeds for 3 separate poems, but I'm going to post this, even though it feels profoundly unfinished with no title.

Our ghosts surround
us.  They stitch shrouds
of lost dreams upon our skin,
a lacy spiderweb of stretch marks.

A sturdy scar tissue of scratches
surrounds the legs of every chair.
We know the ghosts of long dead
cats must visit us.
How else to explain new marks?

And some mornings, I am sure I sense
you, returned to visit all your cookware.
Your bread bowl longs for the feathery
scent of yeast, and your cast iron skillet
wonders when it will cook a pork chop
again.  The canning jars sit empty;
doleful glares surround me every day.