Monday, September 30, 2013

Snow, South Florida Style

The other morning (a few weeks ago), I pulled into my driveway.  It had been raining and was still overcast.  All the surfaces glistened.

I looked at the bush (pictured below), and my first thought was that it had snowed!

Here's an even closer shot:

But of course, it hadn't snowed.  Even on an overcast morning, September temperatures rarely get below 78 degrees.

Above you see the real culprit.  One of our royal palms was shedding.  I don't know enough about these trees to tell you why this happens.  But overnight, it seemed to sprout this white bunch of fronds that released a lot of powdery stuff.

You're saying, "Powdery stuff, eh?  Typical South Florida!"

It also looks a bit like the bush has been sprinkled with parmesan cheese.  It's not the kind of photos that people usually post to their blogs, as summer shifts into fall.  I have no pictures of leaves turning or trees blazing.

I'm still fascinated by all the new-to-me foliage at our house.  We've only moved 2 miles away, but the landscape is so different, in some ways.

And of course, this whole area in the most southern part of the U.S. is so very different from much of the U.S., the landscape of my heart, the trees that shed leaves, not palm fronds.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Snapshots from a Saturday of Simple Joys

--Yesterday on my drive to spin class, I heard two stories, back to back, on NPR's Weekend Edition.  They made me happy to be an English major and grateful for my years of teaching, which solidified that knowledge.

--The first story was about the revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.  It sounds like a fabulous production.

--At one point, the discussion turned to Tom's possible homosexuality.  What does it say about me that I never read him as gay?  I understood the mother's shock and horror at his late-night drinking and his restless inability to just stay put in the house.  It never occurred to me that there might be more.

--Ah, to be close to Broadway, with its current revivals of Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter, and of course, Shakespeare. 

--But ordinary working folks like me can't afford tickets.  So maybe it's good that I'm far away.

--That story was followed by this piece about T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."  It's a great story that talks about High Modernism in both literature and the visual arts.  It took me back to my days studying for Ph.D. comps, reading "The Waste Land" once a week, hoping to understand it enough to reference it.  I love that time period between the world wars and the British works that emerge.

--Did I come home and dive back into my Norton anthology?  No I did not.  I worked on a short story that I WILL send off to Glimmer Train today.

--My work has nothing in common with those High Modernist works.  I am not James Joyce, nor was meant to be.

--My spouse and I spent part of the afternoon at the Home Depot.  We've been spending a lot of time in home improvement stores lately. But yesterday was more fun:  we bought flowers.

--Once upon a time, I'd have turned up my nose at flowers.  I was young and judgmental.  I only wanted art that was functional, like quilting.  I only wanted plants that served as food.

--I decided to live recklessly. I bought flowers that might only last a season. 

--I decorated the house a bit for autumn, along with my Halloween tablecloth and napkins.  Perhaps I will post pictures later this week.

--I'm tempted to buy more decorations for this new house.  But where would I store them later?

--No, I shall wait patiently.  Our church has a pumpkin sale that will start Oct. 13 (if you're a local reader, it's Trinity Lutheran Church, at 72nd Avenue and Pines, by the south campus of Broward College).  I don't usually buy pumpkins for the porch, but this year, I'll give it a try.  Will they last until Halloween?  My porch is shady, unlike my last porch.

--My sneering younger self would not approve of disposable decorations, like pumpkins.  But I'll support the church, and the pumpkins will give me joy for the time that they're here.  And then I won't have to store them until next year.

--Meanwhile, it's still summer down here.  After doing yard work and flower planting, we relaxed by the pool.  We had grilled swordfish steaks for dinner.

--We ended our day with vanilla ice cream.  What a simple joy.  I don't usually have vanilla ice cream all by itself; I have it as a topping for pie or cobbler.  It was delicious!

--Our Saturday of simple joys was a great way to celebrate our return to being a couple who's only responsible for one property.  As my spouse said in the Home Depot parking lot, "We'll see how long that lasts."  For much of our property-owning lives, we've had at least 2 properties; in fact, since 1993, when we bought our first house, we've only had 4 years when we owned just one house.  

 --Can my Saturday of simple joys lead to a Sunday of simple joys?  I think it can!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Gratitude: Dry Closing and Other Anticlimaxes

This week, we experienced a dry closing.  You ask, what is a dry closing?

Apparently, it happens more than we might think these days.  The buyer signs the closing documents, and the seller signs too, often at separate times.  The money comes later.

It's somewhat anticlimactic.  And although I was assured that closings happen this way all the time, it was stressful.  I prefer the old style of closing:  people gather around a table, and at the end, the seller goes away with a check.

Let me pause to be grateful.  When we sold our last property, our condo that we had bought for my mother-in-law, we had to bring money to the closing.  It's better to leave a closing with money that you didn't have before you came.

We put the house on the market 7 weeks ago.  We got our first offer 8 days after we put it on the market.  That offer didn't work out, but we had another one just days later.  In two weeks after we signed the contract with the realtor, we had a signed contract from a buyer who would pay cash--a prize!

We continued to get offers, which means my spouse will be haunted by the what-might-have-been.  I'm glad that we didn't have to deal with the nuances and wrinkles that come when buyers need a mortgage:  there are insurance issues with our older house and appraisal issues.  We didn't have that, and I'm relieved.  My spouse, on the other hand . . .

I'm hoping that with money in the bank, we'll relax and count our blessings.  We have many blessings.

If you've been following this blog, you know that we have done our house shifting in a different order than most people do.  We bought our new house and then put the old one on the market.  We had no guarantees that we could sell it, but we did have a back-up plan to rent it out if we had no interest in it from buyers.

Happily we don't have to think about that.  We have money in the bank, and we're back to owning one property.  What a relief.

It was strange to have signed documents but no money.  Yesterday I watched anxiously for news that money was on its way.

You'd think that in this age of wiring money and transferring funds electronically that it would be more seamless and speedier.  Ha!  That's one reason why our closing took some time.  Our buyers originally thought we'd have the closing in early September.  But new laws about moving money, especially international funds, meant it took a few more weeks.

If the buyers had never mentioned an early September close date, we'd be counting our blessings that we closed by the end of September.  But since we had the possibility of an earlier close, the delay was oddly disappointing.

The dry closing was oddly disappointing too, and we tried to analyze it.  Was it that we had to wait 24 hours for our money?  Why should that depress us so?

I finally decided that part of my sadness came from past experience.  With the previous 3 properties we sold, I felt we were helping the buyers out of a jam, in some ways.  With our first 2 properties, we sold them ourselves, so we got a sense of the buyer's story.  Our first house went to an older African-American woman who was losing her rental house, and the second house went to a single mom with teenage kids who wouldn't have been able to get out of her shoddy rental home otherwise.  Our condo went to two siblings who were buying it for their father; their first condo deal fell through, but they ended up being thrilled because our condo was better than the one they lost.

For our current closing, we sold our house to a granite company.  I thought the granite company owner was buying it for a family member coming from Colombia.  Now I'm not so sure.

Why should it matter?  It shouldn't.  So, tell that to my emotions.

But for all I know, the house will be filled with new residents who will love it.  Maybe those residents will be family members of the buyer.  Maybe the new residents will be renters because the buyer was purchasing an investment property.  I have that strange sense of feeling that the house deserves to be lived in by people who love it.

I know, a house is an inanimate object.  It does not have feelings.  It does not have inalienable rights.  But I may have a poem that's begun to percolate!

So, let me return to gratitude.  I am so grateful that we have moved to our new house.  I love the area.  It's much quieter.

I am grateful that we sold our old house and that we did it just about as quickly as it is possible to do so.  I am grateful that the money found its way to our savings account.

I am grateful for good friends and family who have been encouraging along the way.

I am grateful that I have a full-time job and part-time possibilities that make all of this possible.  I am grateful that my spouse does too.

I'm grateful that my spouse is handy with repairs.  I'm grateful for my father-in-law and friends who have volunteered to help.

And again, let me stress, I am so grateful that we sold our house.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Of Time and Tsunamis of All Sorts

--I recently read Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. What an amazing book! I picked it up because I was after Lionel Shriver's latest book, and Ozeki's was on the shelf too. I knew that my father-in-law was coming for a visit, which meant limited access to computers in the wee, small hours of the morning, so I wanted to make sure I had enough books.

--To think I might have missed this book! Why was I so resistant? After all, I’ve read her other two books, and they were wonderful and amazing. So why, when I read the reviews, had I decided to pass this one by?

--I knew that it was partly comprised of the journal of a teenage girl, and I feel the same way about teenage girl narrators that I do about narrators who are young children: weary and ready to never read another one again. I also don’t often like novels where a journal or letters are the narrative.

--I should have trusted Ozeki. While her teenage narrator has some annoying qualities, they didn’t overwhelm me or make me decide to quit reading. And the book quickly transforms the annoying qualities of the narrator into ways of making us see them as coping strategies.

--I LOVED the other narrator, Ruth, the writer who lives with her husband, Oliver, on a remote island off the coast of Canada.

--The book is full of various artists.  I was taken with Oliver, whose medium is trees, for one project.  He's aware of global warming and the changes the planet is undergoing:  "Oliver wasn't worried.  He took the long view.  Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut, owned by a botanist friend.  He planted groves of ancient natives--metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginko--species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago" (p. 60).

--This book is also about time in all of its facets.  Ruth thinks about narrative as capturing time.  Oliver has a different view of his art:  "This was his latest artwork, a botanical intervention he called the Neo-Eocene.  He described it as a collaboration with time and place, whose outcome neither he nor any of his contemporaries would ever live to witness, but he was okay with not knowing.  Patience was part of his nature, and he accepted his lot as a short-lived mammal, scurrying in and out amid the roots of the giants" (p. 61).

--The book also explores time and technology: 

"Time interacts with attention in funny ways.

At one extreme, when Ruth was gripped by the compulsive mania and hyperfocus of an Internet ssearch, the hours seemed to aggregate and swell llike a wave, swallowing huge chunks of her day.

At the other extreme, when her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like particles, diffused and suspended in standing water" (p. 91).

--Yes, particles and waves.  This is a book that manages to use quantum physics in an approachable way.  I'm in awe of Ozeki's ability to use various sciences in so many interesting ways.

--It's also a book about literal waves.  The 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami are central to this novel.

--Ozeki weaves it all together in interesting ways.  Here Ruth contemplates time, ocean currents, technology, and tsunamis:

"What is the half-life of information?  does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it?  Pixels need power.  Paper is unstable in fire and flood.  Letters carved in stone are more durable, although not so easily distributed, but inertia can be a good thing.  . . .

Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories like geodrift, into its orbit? . . .

Like plastic confetti, they're drawn into the gyre's becalmed center, the garbage patch of history and time. The gyre's memory is all the stuff that we've forgotten" (p. 114).

--The novel also has a strong spiritual element, with a Buddhist nun as a major character, and a Zen Buddhist philosophy that undergirds much of the novel.  For more on that aspect, see this post on my theology blog.

--And the novel explores World War II in interesting ways.

--I realize that I've thrown out nuggets that might make a casual reader of this blog despair at being able to comprehend the novel.  But Ozeki is more than capable.

--This novel has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize.  It seems to be a good year for that prize.  I read this review of the nominated novels and want to read every one.

--The eternal complaint:  so many books, so little time to read them!

--But don't miss Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Of Time and the Facebook Feed

--Early yesterday evening, we walked to the beach.  It was oddly deserted, in the ways of that old Don Henley song, "The Boys of Summer."  Nobody on the beach, very few people in the bars and restaurants.  Was it because of the rainy days we've been having?  Just a simple fact of late September?

--We're in an interseason, done with summer tourists, not yet seeing the refugees from cold climates.  It's wonderful to feel like we have the beach to ourselves.

--I've also noticed the light shifting.  I drove home on Monday after boot camp class and thought about how dark it was.  At first I thought it was about to storm again.  But it was the night, closing in earlier.

--In terms of temperature, it doesn't feel very different:  it's still summer down here in terms of heat and humidity.

--I've had time on the brain because of what I've been reading.  Three weeks ago, I read Elliott Holt's You Are One of Them, a novel that feels very current, although it's set in 1996 Moscow and the Cold War years of the late 70's and early 80's.  Holtt does a great job of capturing those time periods.  I decided to read it because of this review in The Washington Post.

--From that book, I moved on to Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being.  What an amazing book!  I picked it up because I was after Lionel Shriver's latest book, and Ozeki's was on the shelf too.  I knew that my father-in-law was coming for a visit, which meant limited access to computers in the wee, small hours of the morning, so I wanted to make sure I had enough books.

--Ozeki does an amazing job in all sorts of ways.  I'll write a longer review tomorrow (update:  that review is in this post).  But this novel has something for everyone, and it's especially intriguing for fiction writers.  It addresses the question of what is fiction, how we construct characters, how we construct ourselves, how we construct the idea of audience.

--As I was reading that book, I was finishing a short story.  That short story is part of my linked story project.  It includes characters I first created 15 years ago.  Those characters are going in a different narrative direction today than they would have in 1997.  Yet they still feel true to me. 

--If I somehow managed to continue writing about them for another hundred years, how many changes would they endure?  Or would I stop evolving, and thus, they, too, would stagnate?

--A week ago, I got a hot-off-the-presses book, Beth Kephart's Handling the Truth:  On the Writing of Memoir.  It's one of those books that looks so essential that I'm considering buying it.

--I must get back to my memoir writing/creating/revising/shaping.

--I've also been thinking about time and Facebook.  I love staying in touch with people by reading bits and snippets about their lives.  When I have busy weeks, the way the last 2 weeks have been, I worry about what I'm missing.

--My friend, who is also my most constant writing partner in South Florida, told me about an acceptance of her short story, which I didn't know about.  She said, "I posted it on Facebook."  I apologized for not tuning in that day.

--She told me that I could control my Facebook feed so that I was sure to not miss anything.  I've often wondered how Facebook decides what to send me.  I know it's not completely random, yet I know I'm not seeing the posts of everyone who is a Facebook friend.

--But to control it in the way that she suggests?  Do I want to lose the element of serendipity?

--And more important, do I want to take control of the technology this way?  Will I continue needing to control it, to go back and add and delete and tinker?  The thought of it exhausts me.

--I'll let Ruth Ozeki have the last word here.  Her narrator is contemplating time, ocean currents, and tsunamis:  "Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention?  Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories like geodrift, into its orbit? . . . Like plastic confetti, they're drawn into the gyre's becalmed center, the garbage patch of history and time.  The gyre's memory is all the stuff that we've forgotten." (A Tale for the Time Being, p. 114)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Transforming Underutilized Spaces into Artists' Spaces

A few weeks ago on my theology blog, I wrote a post about artists who need exhibit spaces and studios, and I dreamt of a world where churches opened their doors to this possibility. 

I've continued to think about it, so I'm going to repost it here.  What follows is specific to churches, but I've been thinking of all the other underutilized spaces to which these ideas would apply:  schools, strip malls, abandoned big box stores . . . and the list could go on and on.

Here's the post:

 Earlier this week, while talking to a group of friends, the one who's working on an MFA in Visual Arts remarked that her friend in the program was having great difficulty finding an affordable place to have her show.  One of the final requirements for their MFA program is to find the space and arrange for the show.  She's not finding many venues that are affordable and have a chunk of time available for a show.

In this time of empty spaces, why would anyone have trouble finding space for a show?  I immediately thought of churches.

Now I understand that using a non-traditional source, like a church, would have a whole different set of problems, like security.  But surely most churches could devise something.  The churches of my childhood often had a classroom or two that was underutilized.  There's the sanctuary, which could lend itself nicely to certain kinds of shows.  Some sanctuaries already have hooks and hangers in the wall for seasonal decorating.  Why not hang art in the off season?

Artists might say, "But I don't create sacred art."  Good news!  It doesn't have to be sacred to fit into a sanctuary environment.

Now I do know some artists who create works that wouldn't be welcome in that kind of space.  But I know far more artists who do abstract creating who could fit right in.

Maybe the problem is a different one.  Do artists get insulted when I say that their art would be welcome in a sanctuary?  Do they interpret that comment as me saying that their art isn't edgy enough?

In a sanctuary, the major problems with security are solved, as most modern sanctuaries are locked when not in use.  There's still the issue of people wanting to touch the art, but that might be the case in all but the most secure spaces.  I've been in many a gallery where I could touch anything I wanted, since the gallery workers were often otherwise engaged.

I think of a quilt show tradition that one of my former churches launched.  We draped quilts over the pews.  It was amazing, a wonderful transformation of the space that had been dominated by wood and stone.  We let people touch the quilts.  One year, I organized an afternoon poetry reading to go along with the quilt show.

Even if the sanctuary won't work, as I said before, there are other options:  classrooms, offices, a fellowship hall, long stretches of walls.  Most churches would be grateful for the extra traffic that an interesting art show could create. 

I know that many churches have transformed their buildings into early childhood ed spaces.  But even that wouldn't have to be insurmountable.

And for those churches that have lots of space sitting empty, why not transform those spaces into artist studios?  Artists would probably be happy to make a set donation to have studio space.  Many communities have a shortage of studio spaces:  why not be the answer to that need?

Our church has done a lot with our space, but the closest we've come to the vision that I have is the drama group for special needs kids that meets in our fellowship hall.  Our fellowship hall has a raised stage, so it's perfect for them.

The rest of our space isn't great for studio space, but it's the only church I've been in that isn't.  We don't have the warren of classrooms that most churches have in their education wings.

I can hear howls of protests from certain corners:  "We need that space for Sunday School!"

Well, maybe the studios can be used on Sunday mornings.  Maybe the Sunday school classes can meet elsewhere.   Maybe sacrificing artist space for Sunday school isn't the best use of our resources.  Maybe Sunday school would be more effective if Sunday school was more like an artist studio and less like elementary school.

Maybe all sorts of church activities would be more effective if we used the artist studio as a model.  How could we transform worship so that it's more like a place where artists come to create and less like a space where sleepy parishioners come to observe?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Silent Spin

Yesterday morning, still feeling a bit bleary-eyed from Sunday's long day of travel back from the retreat (more details about that retreat in this blog post), I went to the gym.  The sign said, "Spin class cancelled." 

At my gym, we can use the spin room if it's not being used for a class and if we're experienced spinners.  So I got myself set up, turned on my iPod, and . . . complete quiet. 

Full confession:  I haven't used my iPod since a grueling New Year's Eve cross-country flight, and I'm fairly sure I haven't charged it in 2 years.  So, I wasn't really surprised when it didn't work.

I had spent the whole week-end eating very high calorie food at the retreat center.  I needed a work out.  I thought about ditching the spin bike and getting on a treadmill or some other machine.  But in the morning, I hate being surrounded by all the screens broadcasting news shows. I decided to hop on the spin bike anyway, even though I've never done a spin class with no music.  My goal was to last half an hour.

At first, I spent time saying (to myself), "I can't believe I'm doing this with no music."  I decided to keep the door open and the lights on.  For part of the time, another member of our class joined me, and we were mostly quiet--just the noise of our bikes, spinning away.

I expected to hate it.  But it was OK.  And then, I started to really appreciate the experience.  Time didn't pass as quickly as it does in a normal spin class, but it wasn't torturously slow either.  And I even approached a semi-meditative state once or twice.  I tried to pray, as I often do throughout the day, and because there weren't very many distractions, I was able to stay focused on praying.

In the end, I spent an hour on the spin bike.  I left the room sweaty and happy.

And then, after my shower at the gym, I realized I forgot to pack a top for work.  Yes, a skirt, but no top.  I thought about going home.  I was supposed to have a 9:00 appointment, so I worried that rush hour traffic would mean I'd miss my appointment.  I thought about the stores that are on my way to work.

So, I put my work-out shirt back on and said a prayer of thanks for microfiber that hadn't absorbed too much sweat.  I stopped at Ross, but they don't open until 8.  There was a dollar store next door, so I popped in and asked, "Do you sell t-shirts?"

Yes, they do, and yes, they only cost a dollar.  I bought the extra large, although I did wonder if it was a youth XL.  The tag seemed to say that it was an adult XL, so I bought it.

That shirt will leave my closet as quickly as it entered, but it worked for one day.  Happily, the appointment that I had was not an appointment where I needed to be wearing interview type clothes--and it got rescheduled several times, so I needn't have worried.

I was pleased at my capacity to just keep rolling even as I encountered situations that could have sent me catapulting into a bad mood.  And because I could quickly strategize, I improved my mood.

It's not a skill I always have, but it's a skill I often have, and it's one of the coping skills I'm most grateful to have.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Autumn Arrives: The Cusp of the Equinox

Do you have autumnal weather where you are?  Some leaves changing color or other sensory cues to let you know the seasons are shifting?

Down here in South Florida, I often have this experience that reminds me of seasonal shift.  I walk into a grocery store, and I'm hit by the smell of cinnamon:  the cinnamon brooms have arrived!  I walk in, sweaty from the walk to my car, and as I adjust to the chill of the air conditioning, I reflect on how non-autumnal I feel.

If I had more time, I'd put together a fresh photo essay, but that's not the week I'm having this year.  Luckily, I have done this kind of photo essay in the past.  So, for photos that may put you in an autumn frame of mind, see this post.

It's a good time to offer some thanks for what the summer season has given us and to reflect upon our hopes and yearnings for the next 3 months.  I am happy that summer brought me a new house and new experiences that come with living closer to the beach.  I am hoping to begin this new season by closing on the sale of our old house and settling more fully into our new house.  I am hoping to get back to a writing schedule.  I am hoping to be more fully present for people than I have been during the hectic summer I've just experienced.

What are your autumnal yearnings?  What do you hope and plan to do?   

Friday, September 20, 2013

Magical Minutes and Seasonal Shifts

Yesterday afternoon I was on the phone with my spouse when the Goodyear blimp went by my window.

Why does the Goodyear blimp seem so magical?

It also seemed very close.  It was following the Intracoastal, and my office is just blocks away.

And then, something even more wonderful.  I said, "I have to get off the phone.  There's a Culinary student in my office door, and he's got something in his hands."

Perhaps I should have clarified, especially in the wake of Navy Yard shootings.  But sometimes, a Culinary student appears bearing gifts, and he's really got a gift in his hand.

He had an extra apple tart and one of our chef friends downstairs wondered if we'd like it.  Oh to work in a department where there's an extra apple tart, instead of an extra Excel spreadsheet!

But if we can't work in that office, at least we work above the Culinary space, where occasionally, in the same 5 minutes, I look up to see the Goodyear blimp followed by a culinary student with a tart.

I wish for us all a Friday followed by a week-end full of magical moments.  My blogging will be light this week-end, as I am off to a retreat with some women friends.  For years I've wanted to go with them, and the retreat has always been on a week-end when I had conflicts.

But this week-end worked out, and so, off I go, with a van of women friends to Luther Springs, a sister camp to my beloved Lutheridge.  I'm not sure what to expect, as it's not the kind of retreat I usually attend.  But it will be a chance to be with good friends and get to know them better, to be out in nature and a different kind of nature than my usual surroundings, and to have a moment to breathe in and out.

It's been a breathless summer.  It's been a summer full of good things and many happinesses, but I'm ready for a shift in seasons.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lessons from the Rooftop Garage

Yesterday morning, we did a different sort of boot camp class. 

You may be saying, "Boot camp?  When did you join the military?"

No, I'm still going to my little gym that's connected to a hospital, the little gym that began life as a cardiac rehab unit.  One of the classes is a boot camp style class, where we have an interesting circuit course.  Each week is different.  Some classes are lots of weight work, while others have more cardio.  Some classes are equipment intensive, and others are not.  I like the variety.

Yesterday morning at 6:10 I arrived to a room with nothing set up.  My first thought:  "Oh, dear, I've come on the wrong morning."

But no, our instructor had decided to mix things up a bit.  He'd been doing elaborate room set ups, with obstacle courses for us to walk between and/or over often holding weights.  It required much in the way of set up and take down.  Yesterday he simplified.

We grabbed a stretchy band and went to the 7th floor of the parking garage, which at 6:15 was deserted.  And from there we were able to do some sprinting, to do some lunge walks, to exercise our arms in a variety of ways, and to repeat.  And of course, there were stairs on both ends of the work out, and some ab work and stretching once we returned to the classroom at the end of class.

Sure, it was a bit more humid than I like, with a threat of rain.  But it was great to change our perspective.  We worked out our arms facing the beautiful lights of downtown Ft. Lauderdale, which was still lit up because it was dark when we started.  We watched the light slowly break through from the sun about to rise in the east.  As we faced west, we could see the morning commuting traffic building.

It was great to change our scenery.  It was interesting to have a different routine to try.  It was wonderful to remember that we don't need fancy equipment or complicated courses to have a good work out:  just a stretchy band and our bodies.

As always, I started thinking about how these lessons from a morning work out apply other places.  In our writing, in our work, in our reading, and even in our relationships, it's probably good to change the scenery (if not necessarily the projects and the partners), to get out of our routines (especially if they're ruts), and to remember that the simpler approach will work just fine.

How could we experiment with these simple realizations?  Let me count some of the ways:

--We could try creating in a different place or a different time of day.  We could experiment with a new medium or genre.

--We could send out our work to a place we've never tried before.  We could apply for a grant.

--We could write something much shorter than what we usually write.

--We could reconnect with an old friend.

--We could plan a trip to a different place, even if it might be years before we could go there.

--We could take a class.

--We could read a different kind of book.

--We could take on different job responsibilities.  We could volunteer somewhere new.

--We could say no to invitations.  Or say yes.  Or say, "Let me check my calendar and get back to you."

--We could jog around a rooftop garage near sunrise.

--We could chart the path of the moon.

--We could remember what we used to love to do.  And then we could do that.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Year of Curriculum Development

This seems to be the year of curriculum development for many people I know.  Some of our school departments are having curriculum completely revamped; some people are happy, while some are not.  I know several faculty members who are teaching at new places, in addition to with us, and they're having a variety of curriculum experiences.  I have several friends who are learning all sorts of interesting ways to teach with online resources and various LMS (Learning Management Systems) that exist.

Friday a friend said to me, as she often does, "We should create our own LMS and sell it.  We'd be wildly rich."

That friend has not been the same since she went to a technology conference that was part of the South by Southwest festival in Austin.  I love her enthusiasm, but she wildly overestimates my skills with computers.  I love that about her too.

In the spring, I did some curriculum development for an online Humanities course.  It's the kind of thing where the faculty member will be handed the materials that I completed.  With the exception of grading and leading the threaded discussions, there's not much for the faculty member to do.

I'm thinking of how much I've changed since I first started teaching.  In my first years of teaching, I often taught at places where I had to choose between 3 textbooks, and I chafed at that level of outside control.

Now the idea of being handed a course that's ready to go doesn't bother me as much, especially if it's one of the first year courses.  I've taught Composition using a variety of approaches, and essentially, we're all doing the same thing as we try to teach how to write an effective essay.  If I'm teaching a Lit class, I once wanted to choose the literature.  Now I can talk about anything and lead the discussion (but truth be told, if there's time, I'd still like to choose the works of literature).

Have I lost my youthful passion?  Should I be worried?

Is it a sign of being tired?  Or just a sign of being reasonable?  Or both?

I do still find myself enthusiastic about all the new approaches that technology offers--when I'm not worried about being pushed out of my career field by all the technology.  It's an interesting time to be in education.  I have some friends who are convinced that we're at the beginning of an exciting era.  I have others who are convinced that the world of education that they loved has gone away.

I suspect we're all correct to a certain degree.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

If Flannery O'Connor Created You as a Character . . .

On Friday, I attended a training session for being a ReadingPal to a first grader, which I wrote about in yesterday's blog post.  At one point, I began to feel like a character in a Flannery O'Connor short story--and not the good kind.

Let me take a minute to ponder whether or not there's a good kind of character to be in an O'Connor short story.  Nobody comes to mind.  There's the stupid and deluded character, like the mom and the neighbor in "Good Country People."  There's the criminally awful, like the Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."  There's a host of self-righteous people.  No, I don't think there are many admirable humans in the world of O'Connor's fiction.

Yesterday we got to the part of the training session where we were instructed about what we are not:  we are not parents, we are not disciplinarians, we are not saviors, we are not social workers.  It's not our job to fix the children, because these children are not broken.

And that's when I got a great idea for an O'Connor-esque short story:  a good, Christian woman decides to volunteer to read to a first grader.  The woman is middle-aged, a bit dumpy, not much else going on in her life.  She needs to feel like she's making a difference.

She expects the first grader to be delightful and innocent, and thus she's a bit blind.  From here, the story could go in many ways.

And then I had the horrifying thought:  am I that main character?  In an O'Connor world, I'd be headed for something horrible.

But I am not that character, although that character would have a bit of me in her.   Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I don't have to be that character.  It does seem to be a danger.

Once again, I'll make art, and I'll hope to avoid catastrophe.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Reading to First Graders

Yesterday I went to the United Way for literacy training.  Well, that's not exactly true.  I'm going to be a ReadingPal, which means I'll go to an elementary school once a week and read to one child for the rest of the school year.  We'll be given the books (thanks Scholastic!) and the order in which to read them, and we'll spend two weeks on each book.

Why, on top of my already busy schedule, am I doing this?  Through my social justice work with my church, I've come to know about the roughly 70% of third graders in Broward county who aren't reading at grade level.  It's a predictor of all sorts of sad outcomes. 

But how to fix it?  We've gone to the school board to request different reading programs, different pedagogies.  As I've looked at the huge group of church people who gather once a year for a Nehemiah action, I've thought, what would happen if we all just went to elementary schools and read to children?

So, when our school president passed on information from the United Way, I decided I couldn't pass up this opportunity.  It seemed easy enough.

And then I started having second thoughts.  We'd need to have fingerprinting done.  It was beginning to seem complicated.  I almost cancelled my plans.

Luckily, I was going with a friend, and when she wanted to change her mind, I talked her out of it; she did the same for me.

We went to the United Way building, and I was taken back to one of my earlier career plans when I was a college gal.  Yes, I planned to be a social worker and to change the world.

Then I did two summers of being a social worker in training, and I changed my mind.  The first summer was fun:  we had some funding, we did a great winterizing houses program, we coordinated with other agencies.  The second summer was grim.  My job was to answer the phones and to tell everyone we had no money.  I heard the most heartbreaking stories.  We still had no money.

So, I changed my mind.  I decided to go to grad school.  I'd be a college English teacher.  I'd change the world that way.

Go ahead and laugh at me.  I'll wait.

So, yes, my inner do-gooder is still alive and well.  That's one reason why I'm going to spend the academic year reading to a child.  But I also realize that if I'm changing one child's life, one year at a time, it will take a long time to change the world.

But it's a start.  And I need to feel like I'm doing something more than corralling e-mails and redoing assessment charts and wrestling with spreadsheets.

While I was there, I had an idea for a Flannery O'Connor-esque short story--after I had a panicky moment when I wondered if I was a character in a Flannery O'Connor short story.  But that's a blog post for a different day . . .

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Easiest Cookie Recipe Ever

One of my frustrations with life as an administrator is that the work comes unevenly.  There are days when I'm caught up, days when I've worked ahead, days when I look at my watch and wonder how I'll fill the remainder of the hours.  I try to remember to pull out writing projects on those days.

Then there are days like yesterday.  I went to one meeting, where I found out that an assessment project that I thought was finished actually needs one more revision, and it needs to be done by Friday.  I got a spreadsheet that's exhaustingly long, and I had to hunt for my classes which need electronic textbooks and enter in information.  The spreadsheet came as a list of books, and I don't have the names of the textbooks memorized; if I'd had the spreadsheet organized by classes, it might have been easier.

Luckily, I had last quarter's version of the spreadsheet, so the hunting was easier.  But why do we have to enter in information at all, if it hasn't changed?  Grr.

For the last week, I haven't had more than one transcript to evaluate for transfer credit in any given day.  Yesterday, it was like everyone woke up at once and sent in evidence of former work.

I felt like I was racing from pillar to post (an interesting phrase, eh?).  So, it was a delight to take a break to have a potluck supper with a group of friends who work with me.

We gathered in the conference room for our simple meal:  hummus, pita chips, bread, potato salad, chicken salad.  I brought in my favorite cookies that I'd baked the night before.  One of my friends said, "That's my favorite!"

I do often bring these cookies to potluck gatherings.  This recipe is one of the easiest ones in my repertoire.  It's often easier to bake them than it is to go to the grocery store.

It has occurred to me that you, too, might need this kind of recipe.  It's easy and if you keep a kitchen stocked in the way that I do, you've got the ingredients on hand.  You melt the butter, so you don't need to think ahead.  They're delicious fresh out of the oven and just as delicious days later.

This recipe is from one of my favorite cookbooks:  Beatrice Ojakangas' The Great Holiday Baking Book.   She's got a recipe for every conceivable holiday and great ways to celebrate the passage of the seasons.

Butterscotch Bars

1/4 C. butter, melted
1 C.  packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 C. flour (partial whole wheat works well)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 C. nuts (I prefer pecans, but you might like walnuts)

Preheat the oven to 375.  Butter a 9 inch square pan.

Beat the brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and egg together until light and fluffy.  Stir in the flour and baking powder, and when combined, the nuts.  Spread the batter into the pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the center is firm to the touch.  A tester may not come out completely clean--the bars will solidify as they cool.  You should cut into serving size bars after 10-20 minutes of cooling.

This recipe is easily doubled and baked in a 9 x 13 inch pan.  You could also add chocolate chips into the batter or melt 1/2 c. of chips and drizzle across the top of the bars.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Commemoration, Art, and Protest

--You don't need me to tell you that today is the anniversary of many grim events:  the 1973 coup in Chile, the attacks of 2001, the Benghazi assault of last year.  This year, I don't have anything new to add about any of those events.  I don't feel like looking back.  But perhaps this approaching anniversary explains my recent anxiety and sort of lost feeling (see yesterday's post for more on that mood).

--I do wonder why some dates emerge as a sort of central point of a constellation of events, whether good or bad.  April 19 is the same kind of date (Oklahoma City bombings, the fiery end to the Waco stand-off, the deadly end of other sieges--Ruby Ridge?)--and it's close to significant school shootings, like Columbine and Virginia Tech.  I often feel a kind of uneasiness as the date approaches.

--Maybe I'm feeling strange because of the Libya drum beats.  Will I later wonder why I didn't mention the Libya debates in this blog?  I often go back to my paper journals looking for mention of current events, and I'm surprised to find absolutely nothing.

--Or am I feeling sad because my Create in Me friends have been at their retreat to plan the retreat, and I decided that I couldn't go this year?

--Last night, as I stared into the post-midnight darkness, I got some lines for a poem:  "I am the lost coin."  "I am the lost sheep."  "I am the prodigal child."  And this morning, I wrote a poem.  I like the idea of taking my sorrow and the world's sorrow and turning it into art.

--You might be thinking, coin, sheep, prodigal child--isn't that out of the Bible?  Why yes, it is.  I had been working on this blog post last night, and so I had those images on the brain.

--I have another line for a poem, but no poem to go along with it.  Feel free to use it:  "A quilt can be a door."

--I'm part of a group that makes quilts for Lutheran World Relief.  The quilts are sent to all parts of the world, not just where there's cold weather.  They're used in many ways.

--Will you be participating in a day of service today?  I like that way of commemoration too. 

--I have colleagues who wonder why younger generations aren't out protesting:  Libya, high tuition, whatever used to drive students to the streets.  But I wonder if that's effective anymore.  It certainly doesn't seem as effective as it once was.  It's as if the people in charge have trained themselves to tune out that kind of protest.

--But a day of service?  Could that be an effective way of protest?

--It's certainly better than blowing things up or assassinating world leaders or releasing deadly chemicals. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Dealing with a Bleak House of a Mood

This has been the kind of morning that is a challenge to my normal, sunny mood.  It's the kind of morning where I look at all the elements of the house that I found enchanting and feel growly.

For example, we have beautiful palm trees.  Until we moved to a house with beautiful palm trees, I had no idea of how often they dropped their fronds.  And although palm fronds look lightweight, they're not.

This morning, I drove too close to a brush pile of them, and I drug one across the street as I was headed to an easier parking space.  I don't think I've ruined my car.

Of course, my car is old (a 2001 Corolla) and not in the best shape to begin with, so how will I be sure?  The tires are still inflated and it moves, so I'm calling it fine.

Yes, it's been that kind of morning, where I look at what I thought would be the enchanting parts of owning a historic home, like the uneven floors, and wonder what we've done to ourselves.

It's been the kind of morning where I wonder if I'll ever get anything substantial written in this study.  I think of what I used to do and feel a deep sorrow.

Of course, when I'm sinking into that black hole, I don't think about my daily blogging, my set of linked stories that are coming together, the memoir that I will shape into something meaningful.  I think of the years when I wrote a novel or two.  I think of all the poems I once wrote.  I think of how many packets of submissions I'd have already mailed by this time back in September of 1999.

I thought about not writing about any of this, about my weepy mood, my black snarliness, my worry that we're hemorrhaging money, my fears that are repressed so deeply that I'm unsure of what they actually are.  But I want this blog to be a record of my life, in as much as I can be open and public.

More important, I want to create an accurate record of what it means to live a creative life.  I find that I like to blog about the progress that I've made on projects, but I'm less likely to blog about the frustrating times.  I don't want other creative people to read my blog and say, "She accomplishes so much and stays so happy--what's wrong with me?"

As always, my frustrations melt away if I can just find some time to write or be creative in other ways.  in fact, this morning I thought about making a coffee cake, but decided to write this blog post instead--it's fewer calories and more permanent.

And the writing about my black/sad mood has helped it dissipate a bit.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My Inner Apocalypse Gal and My Inner Pollyanna

--I have disasters on the brain this morning, and I'm not sure why.  Is it the constant backbeat of discussion about Syria?  Is it the fact that we're having a very quiet hurricane season? 

--I spent part of the night dreaming about potential disasters.  I dreamed that I joined a group of friends on a very crowded beach, even though a hurricane was headed our way.

--We drank wheatgrass margaritas, which seems like a disaster of a different sort.

--On this day, in 1965, Wikipedia tells us, "Hurricane Betsy made its second landfall near New Orleans, Louisiana, leaving 76 dead and $1.42 billion ($10–12 billion in 2005 dollars) in damages, becoming the first hurricane to top $1 billion in unadjusted damages."

--When I swam in the ocean Thursday, it was cold.  Our Atlantic is often like a warm bathtub deep into October.  I'm hoping that the cooler water is a good sign.

--But I also know that late season storms, like Hurricane Wilma, have done all sorts of devastation.  But the water felt warmer that year.

--Do I also think about disaster this time of year because September 11 approaches?  Last year, I was at a retreat planning session, so I wasn't thinking about anniversaries as much.

--Or maybe I'm feeling the cumulative impact of the bad news of others.  So many people I know are having a tough year:  medical diagnoses, deaths of good friends, children with struggles, chronic unemployment or underemployment.  Last year was a year like that for us, so I feel that pain.

--But I feel a sense of good fortune, because so far, if I've managed to just hang on, times do get better.  I'm an odd mix of Apocalypse Gal and Pollyanna.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Recent Bodily Adventures in Books

Yesterday I consumed all of Lionel Shriver's recent book, Big Brother.  Wow.  I confess that I read it in a big rush because I was surprised to find it in the public library at all, and I knew I wouldn't have a chance to renew it.  I knew, because I tried and was denied, which meant I'd have 2 weeks.

Still, that time limitation doesn't fully explain why I zoomed through it.  Neither do some of the traditional explanations:  it was compelling, in a certain way, but not in they "Wow, I have to know what happens next!"  I know the statistics.  I know that a book about weight gain and loss and hungers of all sorts is headed in a certain trajectory.

I also didn't gulp it down because I loved the characters so much.  On the contrary, I often find Shriver's books tough because her characters are so often less likable than they are likable.

Maybe it's because my spouse was working on a deadline, and I had a free chunk of time.  It's easier to read when I have that kind of time.

Still, it's a good book, well worth your time.  There are surprises along the way, which I won't spoil.

Just before reading that book, I read Jennifer Haigh's The Condition, a novel about a character with Turner's Syndrome and its impact on a whole family.  Now that book was full of complex characters who were not quite as difficult to spend time with as Shriver's characters.  And that book did have a wanting to know what comes next quality.

Interesting that I've just read two books about medical conditions and their affect on families, especially on siblings.  I didn't plan it that way; it was just one of those serendipitous things.

I picked up Haigh's book because I read her more recent novel Faith when it first came out, and I found it compelling.  Unlike past years, when I'd have read the whole back catalog of an author, I didn't do that right away.  But when I was wandering through the stacks, looking for something to read, I saw the book on the shelf, remembered liking it, and picked up The Condition.  I'm glad I did.

I should remember to return to earlier books when I discover an author/book I love.  I've become that reader who always wants the newer, later work.  It's good to remember the earlier works are equal to be a joy too.

If you like interviews with authors, don't miss this interview with Lionel Shriver.  You might want to save it for after you've read Big Brother, if that book is on your list.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Queen Elizabeth!

Today is the birthday of Queen Elizabeth I, born in 1533.  You might shrug your shoulders and say, "So?  What does that have to do with me?"  I could make the argument that no other ruler in history has more affected our modern lives.

I know, I know, you've got your own list, and you could make a strong case for many others.  I could make a similar case that many of those rulers born after 1600 wouldn't have been possible without Elizabeth I.  We could spend a pleasant evening debating who's the best ruler in history and comparing their accomplishments to QEI--maybe several evenings.  Even if we couldn't agree on #1 status, I bet she'd make most people's top 10 list.

I'm profoundly affected by the fact that she was one of the earliest female leaders to rule by herself.  I know that she had advisers, but they weren't the kind that controlled her every move.  What leader doesn't look for advice from great minds?  I'd say that's the mark of a good ruler.

Once we had the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, it became much harder to say that women couldn't rule, solely because of their biology.  We're still not at the point where women are automatically accepted.  But we're much closer, and it was Elizabeth who set us down that road.

Those of us who live in North America and aren't Native Americans owe Queen Elizabeth a tremendous debt.  As a woman who spent much of her teenage years in and around Virginia, it's hard to escape acknowledging her impact.  She's the one who funded the earliest explorations.  It's the English who came and stayed, as opposed to the Spanish who came and plundered.  We might give future British rulers, like Charles I, more credit for the settling of the North America, but Elizabeth I started the process.

But I'm most impacted by Elizabeth's support of the arts. Would we have had a William Shakespeare and all those other great Elizabethan writers without her, without the culture she created that supported the arts?  I would say no.  She's a great argument for how great politicians can lead to great art. 

I understand the dangers:  Shakespeare was fortunate because he was creating the kind of art that the queen liked and could support.  I understand that all kinds of censoring can come from that.  But if we look at the history of literature, we see that often periods of great innovation come most often during times when government support of the arts is strongest. 

It's good for artists to get support.  It's good for outsider artists to have something to rebel against.  Those times of government support of the arts feel so different from the time we live in now, where there's so little support of any kind for the arts.

So happy birthday, Queen Elizabeth!  I shall drink tea in your honor today.  Of course, we've hit a hot streak of weather down here in South Florida, so it will be iced tea.  But I shall drink it, and I shall offer a prayer of gratitude for all that you accomplished.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How I Spent My Rosh Hashanah

I was only vaguely aware of Jewish holidays before I moved to South Florida.  In South Carolina, we didn't always get standard holidays, like Memorial Day, off; we certainly didn't get any non-Christian religious holidays.

My first year here, I was happily surprised to find out that we got both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as holidays at the community college where I worked.  Public schools are closed.  My college, alas, doesn't have those days as holidays.  But I do have a schedule that can often be flexible.

So on Sunday, when a group of friends who teach in the public schools talked about how to spend their Rosh Hahanah holiday, the subject of the beach came up.  I reminded my friends that we now live half a mile from the beach.  We talked about parking at my house, where the parking is free.  We decided to check back in with each other at mid-week.

And that's how I came to spend my Rosh Hashanah morning at the beach yesterday.  What a treat!  One friend has a 4th grade daughter who came too, so we spent lots of time building a sand castle, digging a big hole, looking for shells, and creating towers of sand.  We spent less time in the ocean as the surf was rough, and the occasional jellyfish spooked us.

I had Rosh Hashanah on the brain, but not enough so that I made an apple cake or something traditional.  I know that people eat sweets on this holiday in the hopes of having an upcoming year that's sweet.  Does the same hold true for other kinds of invitations?  Should we be doing activities on Rosh Hashanah that we hope to invite into our lives for the rest of the year?

I'm not sure that's a real Jewish tradition, but I like the idea of it.  If so, I spent much of yesterday in activities that I hope to see increase in the coming year.

I started even before my friends arrived.  I got some writing done.  I had some time reading a book.  My day was book-ended with quality time with my spouse.

Even work was good.  I got some annual reviews completed, and all of my department members are doing good work and doing it well, so that activity isn't onerous.  I evaluated some transcripts for transfer credit.  I did some problem solving.  It was pleasant.

When I got home, my spouse was ready for a break, so we put on our walking shoes and headed back to the beach.  There's an organic brewery at the beach that we both like, and we discovered that Monday through Friday, the pizza is half price.  We put in our order and finished our walk while our pizza was being prepared.  We shared pizza and beer as we watched the light shift with the setting sun.

Yes, I'd like more of these Rosh Hashanah activities in my coming year.  I'd like more time at the beach.  I'd like to spend more time with friends.  I'd like more quality time with my spouse.  I'd like time to watch the sea and the light change the color of the clouds.

It's not the traditional Rosh Hashanah sweetness of apples dipped in honey, but it was plenty sweet for me!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Return to Fiction (Writing)

--You may have noticed that I didn't blog yesterday.  I was working on writing a short story, and the morning zipped away from me--but in a good way!

--I am still working on short stories that link together.  I see the problem I will have, the problem of having too many stories and not wanting to lose a one.

--Yesterday's story involves the two characters who have gone into the ministry--and they're characters you wouldn't expect to have gone into the ministry.  One is a gay man in a committed marriage (to another man) and one is a woman who went into the ministry when she was deep into midlife--but she's my mother's age, so she was one of the first women to head off to seminary to be a Lutheran minister.

--My story will revolve around whether or not a church can be welcoming when a transgender person who is undergoing the transitional time comes in the door.  My female character was too old to be the head of the church and my gay man was too early in his career.  What to do?

--Then I had an idea which seemed like a flash of brilliant insight:  he could be serving her church during his internship year of seminary, and she could be the emeritus pastor who is leading the church while they look for a full-time minister.  It seems to be working.

--Once I would have worried about depicting a gay man in my fiction, about not being offensive, about not appropriating culture--much the way I once worried about creating minority characters.  Now I have similar worries about creating a transgender character.

--One of my colleagues at work, who is also a former student, posted on Facebook a guide of what to talk about--or not talk about--with transgendered people.  One of the don'ts:  don't ask about genitalia.

--Yes, I admit, I was shocked.  I was brought up with the idea that polite people don't discuss many things:  finances, religion, politics.  We didn't have to be told that we shouldn't talk about genitals in polite company.  Really?  People think that's OK?  Really?

--Good to know, though.  Perhaps I'll work it into a scene.

--I've decided it's time to start sending my stories out into the world again.  Why did I stop?

--One reason:  the high cost of postage.  But now that I can submit electronically, I'll do that.  I don't mind paying a small fee to submit short stories electronically.  But paying $4.00 to submit poems? Postage is cheaper.

--I have always wanted my work to appear in Glimmer Train.  And the month of September is one of the months where it costs nothing to submit.  So, I'll begin there.

--If you, too, want to submit, the information is here.

--It's good to return to fiction.  I love the possibilities for symbolism.  My ministers work at Jamestown Lutheran Church.  They work there because they happen to be in the area.  But I love the idea of Jamestown as the first English colony, the fact that my ministers have been early settlers (first generation of women to be ordained, first group of openly gay men to be ordained with no chance of censure), the fact that they're called to yet another new territory.

--One thing I must guard against in my fiction writing:  the names can be too obvious, not believable.  My transgendered character's name is Vic (Victor, transitioning to Victoria), which has all sorts of symbolic possibilities.  I want a whisper back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  There's also the movie Victor Victoria

--Yes, it's good to return to fiction.  There's a sense of play in fiction that I don't always feel in other genres.  Of course, there's also the discipline of structure.  I'm usually a big believer in the narrative arc, in the Aristotelian requirements of a good drama.  I often begin by thinking about the conflict.

--Once I was a belligerent student who declared that fiction didn't need a conflict to be good.  My favorite undergraduate English professor challenged me to find a piece of fiction of any kind, good or bad, that didn't have a conflict.  Wise woman--I couldn't find a one.

--And here I sit, thirty years later, wrestling with conflict, determining the turning point, strategizing about how to get the story where it needs to go.

--What fun!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Poetry Tuesday: "Somewhere Between Side Dish and Dessert"

It's been awhile since I offered a poem here. Since I've just had one published in Big Muddy, let me post it today.

It's part of the series that I began long ago, before I knew I was starting a series, poems that try to answer the question a childhood Sunday School teacher asked, "What would it be like if Jesus came back today?"

The poem also perhaps tells more than I want to acknowledge about modern miracles. Do I yearn for an end to world hunger or just my own hunger? If Jesus came back, would I want him to put the world to rights or just my closets/storage space?

Or is it just a poem about the nature of love?

You decide.

Somewhere Between Side Dish and Dessert

Jesus came by to cook dinner.
He knew I didn't have time to get to the grocery
store. He knew I'd been living
on fast food, and he took pity on me.

Jesus knows that we want to taste
joy, and Jesus knows our secret desires.
Jesus fried up succulent chicken, meat
falling from the bones. He mashed
potatoes with cream and butter
and carefully separated grit from the greens.
He made that sweet potato casserole
that lives somewhere between side dish and dessert.

To end, we ate a cobbler
made of peaches, luscious though out of season,
topped with drifts of vanilla ice cream.

I fell asleep, fully sated
for once. When I awoke,
Jesus was gone, but my fridge was full
of leftovers and gallons of sweet tea.
Clean dishes gleamed from my cabinets.
Jesus had even rearranged the linen cabinets
and washed my dirty laundry. For weeks,
the house stayed clean, the fridge full.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Modern Career: Disappearing Faster than Glaciers

If you came here looking for a meditation on the modern workforce/work place with a particular focus on the field of education, see this older blog post of mine.  Sadly, it still seems quite relevant, more so today than when I wrote it.

It also seems relevant to many more fields than education.  Sigh.

Maybe our pool guy has the right idea.  Our new house has a pool, and I decided to have the pool guy keep coming to service the pool, at least while we were getting settled.  In many ways, that pool is a huge investment, and I don't want to have anything dreadful happen to it. 

He usually comes on Monday, and I'm usually not here to see him.  But he came yesterday, and I noticed how quickly he got his tasks done.  And then he was off to the next pool.  He told my spouse that he does about 11-15 pools a day. 

If he does 11 pools a day, and he works 5-6 days a week, and he charges each pool owner $70 a month--yes my pool guy is in a brilliant business! 

It can't be outsourced, except to someone who will charge more (most of my friends are paying $80-100 a month) or to us.  But it's people with resources who usually hire a pool guy anyway.  It's not exactly a recession-proof business, but it comes closer than many businesses.

I wish I liked doing manual labor.

My spouse and I are shifting our thoughts to the idea of income streams rather than careers.  We like the idea of income streams that aren't dependent on us reporting in person to a physical place every day.

Of course, it's easier to think this way when one of us has such a job which provides nice benefits, like a steady paycheck that's an amount I can count on, health insurance, and a retirement plan. 

I'll keep this job as long as I can.  I suspect it may be the last time I'll have this kind of job.  They're vanishing faster than glaciers.

On this Labor Day, I slept late, until just after 7 a.m., which is late for me.  The gym is closed, so no spin class to attend.  Plus, we were up in the middle of the night to the sounds of an animal who seemed to be trapped on part of the roof.  But once we turned on the outside lights, it seemed to find its way out.

I think of all the work a house requires.  We should trim the trees back from the house.  We should take out the ficus.  That's just the tree/shrubbery tasks that need attention.  The other day I weeded the pavers with my bare hands.  I've still got the scrapes.

The house as harsh taskmaster.  Does that labor metaphor work on this Labor Day?

Of course, in the past few years, we've seen the homeowner disappearing faster than glaciers too.

But now, I'm going to turn my attention to cheerier topics.  I thought I might walk to the beach and watch the sun rise this morning, but I've missed that opportunity.  Still, I plan to continue my Capture Summer Culinary Pleasures Plan today:  I've got watermelon to eat and some grilled salmon to finish.  I'll finish reading the Stephen King time travel book, 11/22/63, a really great read--I'm getting close to the end, and I still can't figure out how it will end.  I'll read by the pool.

And I'll remember to be grateful for my job, which makes these summer pleasures possible. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sunday Snippets: First Day of September!

--Can it really be the first day of September?  In my ongoing quest to wring as much summer joy as I can out of the weeks of summer weather left to us, I have a blueberry coffee cake cooling.  I've bought melons of all kinds, and we'll grill some more this holiday week-end.  I have corn on the cob ready for eating this week-end too.

--Yesterday on my way to the grocery store, I stopped to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic.  It was the kind of scene that if I painted it, you'd accuse me of being over the top, with the reflective clouds and the intensity of colors:  purples and greys on the outer edges of the horizon, a rippled gold closer to the sun that would rise in 5 minutes, smoky whites to provide depth.  It was hard to tear myself away to attend to the mundane tasks of food.

--So I didn't tear myself away.  I watched the light change.  And I think I saw a dolphin.  The runners were talking about the dolphins they'd seen, and everyone was looking to the southeast.  So, I watched too, and I saw a curved back.

--Was it a curved back or a wave?  I'm almost sure it was a dolphin.

--Later in the day, we saw a manatee in the Intracoastal Waterway.  We had walked to the end of our street, which took us to the Intracoastal.  A young, heavily tattooed couple was fishing when the manatee surfaced.  She jumped back.  We raced over to confirm what we'd seen.

--Yes, a manatee!  What a strange creature.  It's either travelled early or never travelled back north when they usually do.  We usually don't see manatees down here until it's colder up north.

--When we first moved down here, we rode our bikes to a state park.  We heard a guy calling "Manatees!"  We went to the bridge where we saw a mother manatee and her baby.  We'd been here less than a month.  We took it as a sign from the universe that we were meant to be here, that all the risks were worth it.

--Similarly my marine animal sightings yesterday have affected me the same way.

--And yet, I feel somewhat guilty too.  Why am I blessed in this way?  I know so many people who are wrestling with so many serious issues.  Why is my life relatively trouble-free right now?

--I know, I know, my life has had downturns, and will have again.  I'm trying to be grateful for the calm and not look over my shoulder too much.

--I'm also going to let my gratitude affect my generosity.  When the old house sells, by which I mean when the deal is done and we have cash in our bank accounts, I'll be sending some charity dollars to those groups who help the people who don't have houses.

--Here we are at Labor Day week-end.  In a past age, we'd have been putting away our sandals and our summer whites.  We don't live in that age anymore.  For most of us, it's far too early to put away the lightweight cloth.  Many of us can wear sandals 9 months a year.  How quickly our planet is changing!

--I'm listening to the great NPR show On Being as I write, a show that has a great interview with Natalia Batalha, a scientist of planets and deeper space (go here to listen or to read the transcript or to enjoy the other resources).  She's talked about the changes that happened on earth when life moved from the seas to the land and she wonders what changes we'll see as earthly life moves to space.  

--She also talks about the scientific method and discovery:  " . . . it's a testament to the scientific method. We have human biases. We have human perspectives and they bias the way we look at the universe. But if we stick to the facts, if we stick to the observations, it's a method of removing that human perspective and, when we do so, amazing things happen. We stumble upon something that's even more wonderful."

--Can we apply the same thing to writing?

--I've been thinking I should say something about the death of Seamus Heaney, but everything I've thought about seems so trivial.  Happily, there are other writers out there who have written wonderful essays.  Beth over at The Cassandra Pages has written my favorite; go here to read it.

--Here are the words I longed to say; I've grateful to Beth for articulating it so well:  "I can't even describe what his poetry meant to me: it often moved me deeply, and has given me unforgettable images, but his work is also one of very few high-water marks of English language usage written in my own lifetime: he is, for me, the contemporary Shakespeare, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot with whom I feel an immediate and personal connection."

--I've been writing poetry again, sketching out an idea for a short story, sending out packets of poetry into the world.  Sometimes it seems such a stupid waste of time.  Why does it really matter?  But the distress that we still feel when we lose creative people reminds me that it is important in ways we can't know when we're doing it.