Saturday, November 30, 2013

Plan Before You Say Yes: A Saner Holiday Schedule

Yesterday's post talked about holiday budgets in the monetary sense. For today, I'd like to think about the upcoming holiday season in terms of time and energy budgets. I am often so enchanted by the holiday season that I say yes to way too many activities. I'm so pleased to be included that I say yes, before I think about the rest of my life and obligations.

I'm hoping that with a bit of planning, I can enjoy activities yet not find myself completely depleted and exhausted by the time I get to January 2.

Here are some suggestions:

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. Consider other ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Maybe this is the year to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Take time to help the needy, and if you have children, bring them along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go carolling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. My parents, along with social institutions like church, Scouts, and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. December is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Plan for how we'll get back on track if we get off track. It's important to remember that even with all the best plans, we may find ourselves overscheduled and cranky. Plan now to forgive yourself for those times. Plan now for how you'll get back on track.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Plan Before You Shop: A Saner Holiday Budget

Yesterday in the U.S., we celebrated Thanksgiving. Many of us spent the day cooking, eating, and resting in a variety of ways. That's all about to change. Indeed for a few brave souls, it already has, as they've headed to the stores for bargains, bargains, bargains.

You couldn't pay me enough to go near a store today. I'd rather pay the extra money. Instead, this Black Friday is a good time to do some strategic planning to determine a sane approach to the holiday season. Today is a good time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful December, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December? How can we reach January with our budgets intact, our health robust, and our traditions strengthened?

Today's post will think about our monetary budgets and our shopping. Tomorrow's post will remind us of other ways to keep the holiday season meaningful yet less stressful.

--Make a budget before you buy a thing. Even as you're reading this, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores. Before you go, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need, albeit my needs are fairly simple. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Why give gifts at all? I understand the appeal of shopping for children, but maybe this year is the one where we should think about why we give gifts to grown-ups, many of whom are perfectly capable of buying those items for themselves.

--Could this be the year that everyone makes their holiday gifts? I know, it's too late for most of us to knit a sweater or to make anything elaborate. But why not write a poem for the ones you love? Why not begin to write the family history? Why not make a sketch or two? Make some cookies: eat some and box some up for presents.

--Have this year be the year of found presents. Give an interesting stone or shell that you found at the beach. Make an arrangement of twigs and dried leaves.

--Or, if you're not surrounded by nature, declare that this will be the year of regifting. Go ahead and be open about it from the beginning. Give the film enthusiast all those DVDs you no longer watch. Sort through all your baking pans and cookie cutters and give a few to your favorite chef. Are you really going to read all your books again? Give them away to people who might enjoy them.

--If you have people on your list who insist on presents that they can open, presents that are brand new and purchased especially for them, see if you can find a way for your gift-giving dollars to support local artisans or local merchants.

--Or use your gift-giving dollars to support farmers and/or artisans from less-developed nations. The organization SERVV does wonderful work and offers beautiful gift possibilities.  Go here for more information.

--Don't forget that those gift-giving dollars can support the literary culture that writers want to keep thriving. Give your gift recipient a book or a subscription to a literary journal.

--And don't forget about the other arts communities that could use our support.  Give tickets to the theatre or the orchestra.

Tomorrow: Budgeting time

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Creativity Prompts for Thanksgiving

Sure, I could write a post where I remind us all to be grateful.  But plenty of other people will do that.  No, I shall write a post to encourage us to be creative for Thanksgiving.

You may say, "When do I have time to be creative?  There are meals to be made and then dishes to be washed!"  or "Creative?  Thanksgiving is for football."  But we can make some time for creativity.

--Let's begin with gratitude.  If this day is about nothing else, we should find time to think about what makes us grateful.  Draw a picture, take a photo, make a collage that talks about what fills you with gratitude.  Extra points if you can do this without being too obvious.

--Here's a different way to think about gratitude.  Even our hardships bring some gifts, although those gifts may be hidden from us at first.  Think about the burdens of your current life.  What might they teach you?  Or, from a different angle, pretend it's 20-50 years from now--when you look back at this time period, what will you see to be grateful for?

For example, I remember the days right after my spouse's back surgery.  Part of me felt scared and sad, as I worried about the fact that we're getting older, and we can't trust in our bodies like we once could.  But now, less than a year later, I look back on those days after his surgery as cozy days.  We stayed at the house as he recuperated.  We took small walks and rejoiced in the fact that he had so little pain.  We made chicken pot pie and other comfort foods.  We felt joy at his rapid progress.  That time had gifts that I might not have anticipated.

--For some of us, Thanksgiving is about the food.  It's too late to think about different recipes now.  But think about your Thanksgiving feast.  How could you change your approach next year?  Instead of traditional flavors, what would happen if you took a dish and married it with a different part of the world?  Spicy sweet potatoes instead of your traditional marshmellow topped souffle?  Brussel sprouts with sushi flavorings instead of maple or bacon?

Or, if you've had a feast, think about the leftovers.  Sure, you'll have turkey sandwiches.  Can you do anything differently with the rest of the turkey that you'll have left over?

--What will the first Thanksgiving on a distant planet be like?  Write or draw the scene.

--Put your favorite literary characters together and imagine the meal they would serve.

If you need inspiration, you can go to this blog post to watch me play with the idea of a potluck Thanksgiving feast with Jesus and other New Testament figures.
--Write a Thanksgiving poem without using any of the traditional elements of Thanksgiving.

--Do you remember tracing your hand and turning it into a turkey?  You probably haven't done that since elementary school.  Do it again now.

--Create a Thanksgiving scene, the way that Christians create a manger scene for Christmas.  Use the materials you have on hand.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A More Realistic, and Sobering, Look at Thanksgiving

--As we prepare to prepare our Thanksgiving feasts, let us not lose sight of the realistic side of the colonizing of this continent.  If you want to listen to a great historian giving a great interview, head over to this episode of On Point.  Historian Bernard Bailyn talks about the brutal reality of those early settlements.

--He reminds us that half of the people who came over on The Mayflower died in the first year of the settlement.

--If you want to go in depth, you could read his new book, The Barbarous Years.

--The New York Times reviews his book here.  The reviewer Charles C. Mann writes about Jamestown: "The colony was a commercial enterprise, started by the Virginia Company with the sort of careful financial evaluation that in the more recent past was the hallmark of the dot-com boom. Once the colony’s backers discovered that Chesapeake Bay was, contrary to their initial belief, laden with neither gold and silver nor a passage to the Pacific, they tried everything they could think of to salvage their investment. Ship after ship of ill-equipped migrants — many of them abducted, many of them children — went out, each vessel intended to fulfill some new harebrained scheme: winemaking, silk-making, glassmaking. Each and every one failed, as did the Virginia Company, which went bankrupt in 1624. By then three-quarters or more of the Jamestown colonists had died, felled by starvation, disease, murder, wolves, Indian arrows and even cannibalism."

--Mann's discussion of Jamestown reminded me of a nugget of information that I picked up during the celebration of the 500 year mark of the founding of Jamestown.  The English colonies that did the best were the ones that had women settlers--and it was because the women reminded the men of the need to plant food crops along beside the money crops, like tobacco.

--If you're in the mood for fiction,  read A Mercy. Toni Morrison does the best job of depicting the realism of life in the colonies of any writer I've read.  I reviewed it here.

--Here's a quote from that review that seems appropriate for Thanksgiving:  "I also love Morrison's ethics lessons throughout. In many ways, the last sentences of the ending chapter sum it all up nicely: '. . . to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing' (167)."

--Pick up A Mercy.  It's a short book, and you can probably finish it Thanksgiving afternoon.  It will make you profoundly grateful to be alive in this century.  It may make you afraid of the upheaval that could be coming as we adapt to life on a harsher planet with a more uncertain food supply in the coming decades.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Imagery and Poetry

Last week, I wrote this post that used Thanksgiving as a prompt to poetry writing.  I ended up with a strange meal in that Thanksgiving poem. 

Today, I'll post a poem that takes a more traditional approach to Thanksgiving food, although I'm hesitant.  As I've written before about autumn and poems about that season, the danger in writing these kinds of poems is that we'll incorporate overused images in an already tired way. 

I'll let you decide about the following poem that uses Thanksgiving food and images (turkeys, Pilgrims, Indians).  Have I made them fresh?  Or am I paddling in overstressed waters?

I wrote this poem years ago, when I saw a child walking down the street with his mom, during a beastly hot November day. He held one of those drawings where you trace your hand and turn it into a turkey--he had a paper feather in his paper headband. I realized with a start how close Thanksgiving lurked. Out came this poem:

Indian Summer

Summer returns to us, unwelcome
guest. We flip the switch from heat
to air and wonder if Thanksgiving
in the age of global warming
will always be this warm.

The children trace their hands to create
turkeys. They argue over the proper
number of construction paper feathers
to include in Indian headbands.
No one wants to play a Pilgrim
in the school pageant. Founding Fathers
hold no fierceness. Far better to be a Brave.

I bake the same sweet potato dish
that goes back generations, back to the hills
of Appalachia, when my immigrant
ancestors must have wondered at their folly:
a different continent, a different tuber,
it’s still grubbing for food.

When I was young, I underestimated the strength
of my own spine. I wanted to join Indian Princesses,
sit around a fire, have a special, secret name, to participate
in rites created for white girls with no hip
heritage of their own for outsiders to exploit.

Now I long for my elders, dead too early
from those diseases of a life half lived
in poverty. They left me with a handful
of recipes, good gardening techniques,
and a lifetime of lonely rituals.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Perfect Dinner Recipe for Hectic Lives

At some point last week, I read Leslie's post about the simplest tomato sauce for pasta ever:  4 ingredients that simmer for 45 minutes to make a perfect sauce.  No chopping of onions.  Canned tomatoes.  Could it really be this easy?

I'm delighted to report that it can be.  Easy and delicious.  Like Leslie and her spouse, my spouse and I ate the whole thing in one night.  And cheap:  I used Hunt's petite diced tomatoes.  That can cost roughly $1.50, the pasta cost $1.50, the butter maybe 50 cents, maybe a dollar, the onion maybe a dollar, if that much.  Our whole meal was roughly $5.  Amazing.

The next night we had a dinner of mashed potatoes and New York strip steaks.  I kept thinking, this meal cost almost $25, but last night's meal was so much better.

And did I mention how amazing it tasted?  My spouse and I have very different preferences in tomato sauce, and we both loved this dish.

We need more of these recipes:  simple pantry ingredients transformed into something nutritious and filling--and YUMMY.  It's good to remember that dinner can be this easy.  All we need are a few more recipes like this one, and we're set for weeknight suppers.  Or elegant dinner parties.  Or anything in between.

Here's the recipe.  It really is this simple:


•2 cups tomatoes, with their juices (for example, a 28-ounce can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)

•5 tablespoons butter

•1 onion, peeled and cut in half



1. Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter and the onion halves in a saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt.

2. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with a spoon. Add salt as needed.

3. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta. This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.

~Recipe by Marcella Hazan, who died recently.  I hadn't ever heard of her.  This recipe convinces me that I need to find out more.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Apocalyptic Lunch

Yesterday I had a delightful writer's lunch with my one friend who is writing short stories that feature the characters from Hindu sacred texts. Another friend joined us; she's writing a sociology of creativity. We ate our lunch while talking, and then we got down to the reading of our stories.

There are days when I show up to our writer's lunch without much in the way of questions for my readers. This time, I wanted to make sure that all the pieces of my story/collage worked.

I got inspired by this contest for "researched prose" which instructed: "Pieces should incorporate travel experience, archival research, ethnographic observation, interviews, technical vocabulary from specialized professions, schematics for future technologies, or otherwise explore the vast, undocumented wilderness that lies beyond contemporary fiction and nonfiction’s manicured, clearly demarcated backyards."

The theme?  The End is Nigh.  The instructions said, "Send us your dispatches about anxious endings, anticipated apocalypses, doomsday prepping, or getting right with God and family before it all comes crashing down. Or tell us about the aftermath of a less-than-total cataclysm. How do you move on after you literally (or figuratively) bet it all on END."

Well, apocalyptic tales are my favorite, although I don't always write them well.  I was intrigued by the researched parts we were to include.  It occurred to me, I could make them up!  And then, the fun began.

I created a fake government document that gave instructions for the spaceship travel.  I created a fake magazine article intro from Better Homes and Gardens, the April 2097 edition.  I used an actual document from work this week, a color coded guide to how to handle various disasters that might occur at work (including pandemic disease!).  To go with it, I created this tag line: 
From a declassified document from the Obama Administration’s Department of Education report on disaster readiness, circa 2013

In between, I had 3 stories, of a sort, with a poem.  I had planned to put the poem into prose, but my readers said to keep it as a poem.  Each of them involved some kind of quilting detail.  One of the stories is a short part of a larger story that I wrote about 15 years ago.

Like I said, it's more of a collage than a traditional story with a narrative arc.  I had such a great time creating it.

Will I enter the contest?  Probably not.  It's got a fee, and I tend to save my fees for book-length contests.  But at least I could get a subscription to The Carolina Quarterly.  I will send it out for publication, even if I don't enter the contest.

I likely wouldn't have written the story without the contest; likewise, I probably wouldn't have written the story if I didn't have the deadline of my writer's group.

Many things are making their way to my gratitude list this week, but I'm profoundly grateful that my work life can include a writer's lunch.  I'm even more grateful to have friends who are writers.  I'm grateful that we're willing to read each other's work and keep each other on track.  I'm grateful to still have ideas that make me thrilled to get up in the morning to write.  But I'm most grateful for those friends.  Not everyone has a group that supports and encourages them.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Book Reception on a Rainy Night

One of the joys of my life as an administrator involves organizing celebrations.  You might think that perhaps I missed my calling as an event planner.  I assure you that's not the case.  I'm not the person who remembers that we need tablecloths, for example. 

But I do understand the importance of celebrating our victories.  And the victories that are most important to me are the ones that involve our creativity.

When I found out that one of my colleague friends had a 3rd edition of her book coming out, I asked when the book signing would be.  She shrugged and said, "Who would care?"

Well, as she did the revisions, I'd heard about the work it takes to update an edition.  It's not quite the same as writing the original book, bringing it into existence where nothing had been before.  But it's still a year-long labor deserving of celebration.

I asked our dean if we had a bit of money in the budget for a reception.  Happily, we can still afford a reception on a small scale:  a cake, some coffee, a veggie tray, a fruit tray.  We have a nice space in our small gallery.  So, we picked a date and ordered the food and waited to celebrate the new book.

Yesterday turned surprisingly rainy, so we weren't sure what to expect.  I thought we might be taking lots of cake home.  But happily, many people came by.  And it wasn't only faculty.  We had a few students--and lots of Admissions folks.

I talked to one of them for some time.  She wants to write a book, but she can't imagine having time.  We talked about ways to carve out time.  I could see the yearning in her face.  I hope she starts that book this week-end.  I plan to ask her about it the next time I see her.

I love being surrounded by people who are hard at work on their books.  My colleague whose book we celebrated last night has a deadline for a new textbook.  Another colleague wrote and illustrated a children's picture book that she's now revising--with a dog in a wheelchair in the new edition!  Another writer/colleague/friend made it through the rain, and we talked about her book of short stories based on Hindu religion and mythology.  I talked a bit about my memoir project. 

I was struck by how many of us get up early in the morning to write.  As the children's book writer and illustrator left to make her way home in the rain, I said, "I'll be raising my coffee cup to you in the morning."

And I am.   

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Life of an Administrator: Pick Your Own Adventure

I haven't done this exercise in some time.  If you're wondering what it would be like to be an administrator, this blog post will show you.  Simply choose 3-4 of the items below, and you see what a day would be like.  Keep doing that, and you'll know what a week or a year would be like.  Keep in mind that some days are lovely and relaxed, while others are full of unpleasantness--and the stress comes from rarely knowing in advance which day will be which.


--You know the benefits of exercise, so you start the day with a 6:30 spin class.  After a quick shower at the gym, you go to work.

--Get to the office early so that you can get real work done.  Some days, you do.  Other days, you have to get mindless tasks out of the way, like deleting excess e-mails so that your system doesn't crash before the day is over.

--Spend 2 hours exchanging e-mails with a student who is convinced that your school should accept his class from a previous school, even though he earned a grade of D, and your school, like almost every other school, only accepts classes with a grade of C or higher.  The student threatens to go to the dean.  You give the dean's contact information to the student.  Then you spend more time sending the dean an e-mail with background info, in case the student follows through.

--Work on long-term projects like assessment or scheduling classes.  Maybe you have some decisions about the budget.

--Meet with a woman who would like to teach in your department.  Unfortunately, you don't foresee a time when you will have openings.  After talking to her, you realize that she has skills that would mesh well with a different department..  You send her materials to that department chair, and you're happy to learn that she might have opportunities in the different department.

--A student comes to complain about one of your faculty members, but the faculty member has done no wrong.  In fact, if the student had read the syllabus, the student would know that the faculty member had, in fact included rubrics and detailed instructions for assignments.  You marvel at the syllabus, which has given you everything you need to know to tell the student how to pass the class.  The student came to you in a sullen mood, but leaves inspired to really try to do the work.  You are hopeful, but tired, as the interchange has taken over an hour.

--Go to a meeting.  Wait for 15 minutes before you realize that the meeting must have been cancelled as you were walking to it.

--Go to a meeting.  Spend 2 hours wondering how any of this information applies to your department.

--Observe a class.  Marvel at the fact that real work is still being done in the classroom.  You realize you've spent too much time reading about the problems with higher education.  In the classes that you observe, you're seeing rigorous instruction and students who are being trained in critical thinking skills.  Not for the first time, you wonder if you should go back to teaching.

--Go to a meeting.  Realize that you're lucky to be working with such smart people.

--A student walks into your office to complain about a teacher.  The student quickly realizes that you're not going to change the grade and fire the teacher.  The student's voice gets louder.  The student's face contorts with anger.  You think about the administrative assistant who sits a wall away.  You wonder if she would hear you if you shouted for her to call security.  You send the student to the dean when he pulls out his cell phone and says, "Should I call my lawyer?  I have my lawyer on speed dial."  You are relieved when the student leaves.  You send an e-mail to the dean in charge of academics in case he goes to that office.  You send an e-mail about the student's behavior to the dean of student affairs so that there will be a paper trail, should something dreadful happen.

--You try to remember to get up and walk around the building.  You want to do this every hour or two.  Some days, you do.  Other days, you realize it's been far too long since you went to the bathroom.

--Return missed phone calls.  Wonder why the new and improved telephone system makes everyone sound so garbled.

--Some days you delight in having a restorative lunch with colleagues.  Most days you eat warmed leftovers or a cup of yogurt at your desk.

--Answer e-mails.  Wonder if people really sent this many memos when everything was on paper.

--If you're spiritual, you try to remember to pray for all the people in the buildings.  Or maybe you try some meditation techniques.  You wish you could light a candle, but you're aware of the dangers of a distracted administrator and a candle.  If you're spiritual, you try to cultivate a garden of gratitude, and you pray for forgiveness when you fail miserably.

--Answer more e-mails.  Ever more e-mails.

--A student wanders into your office.  The student tells you how a class should be taught.  You wonder if you had that smug know-it-all attitude when you were 19.  Knowing that you did, you maintain patience.

--Evaluate transcripts:  high school transcripts from people who want to come to college, college transcripts from students who want to have work they did elsewhere count here.

--You know that exercise is important.  Some nights you leave in time for spin class.  Other nights, you have other commitments that take priority.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Poetry to Prepare for Thanksgiving

A week from today, some of us will begin preparing the Thanksgiving meal, even though it will only be Wednesday.  It's good to get a head start, so that you don't have as much to do on the big day.  Some of us have already started. 

I have not done any holiday cooking or baking.  It's been too hot, and it doesn't seem worth the effort.

Do holidays affect your writing?  I mean the subject matter, not whether or not you have time to write.

I've often wondered if a book of poems organized by the calendar year would be appealing.  I love books of essays and memoirs that are organized that way, and I'm using the calendar and liturgical year (often in sync) to organize my memoir.  But I've never sat down to play with my poems in a similar way.

As a reader, the organization would please me.  I worry that it would seem simplistic to those people who evaluate poetry manuscripts.

But I digress.  Today I want to encourage us to begin our Thanksgiving festivities by returning to poetry.  On Thanksgiving, I'll have a post about additional creative activities we might have fun trying.  That post will have prompts too.

Here's a prompt for poetry writing today.  Imagine you could invite your favorite literary characters or historical figures to your Thanksgiving table.  What would they talk about?

Imagine it's a potluck dinner.  What will they bring?

I first began playing with this idea when I thought about what it would be like to invite John the Baptist to a potluck dinner.  Out came this stanza:

John the Baptist made a main
dish out of locusts, an old family
recipe. We expected to hate
it, yet it had a surprisingly
pleasant texture, sweetened
with honey but not cloying,
the sugar tempered
with strange spices.

I continued with this idea.  What would Jesus bring?  Eventually I settled on this stanza, although I could play with this idea across multiple poems (and I might!):

Jesus fed us parable
muffins, full of figs and grains
and some seasoning we couldn’t
quite name.

And Lazarus, returned from the dead?  Would he have heavenly secrets?  I wrote this stanza:

During his time on the other side,
Lazarus learned the secrets
of flaky pie crust,
so a comforter of pastry encased
everything he brought:
a lamb pie, an onion tart,
fruits in a cream sauce.

I continued until I couldn't come up with any other Biblical figures who might cook.  Eventually I realized I needed a way to finish, a way out of the poem.

It must have been near Thanksgiving when I composed the final stanza:

The next day we discovered the delight
of a feast day devoted to gratitude,
enough leftovers for a whole week-end,
the lingering glow of community.

For me, that last stanza sums up Thanksgiving in 4 lines, and it tells the world why I so love and appreciate this holiday.

Now it's your turn.  And if you're not a poet, this prompt might lead you to interesting fiction plot points.  See what happens.  Let your creativity nourish you so that you're prepared for the whirlwind that will be headed our way in a week.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Southerners Then and Now

--Recently someone said to me that of course our friend would want to rent our cottage because my husband and me are good Christian people.

--She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such.  But the English major part of my brain immediately went to Flannery O'Connor and her short stories, where being a good, Christian woman means something else entirely.

--Last week I was listening to an NPR program that discussed the newly published prayer journals of Flannery O'Connor (for more on that, see this post).  The show included a few clips of her voice, even a bit of her reading from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."  I found myself marvelling at her accent--such a heavy, Southern accent, as you might expect from a Georgia native in the middle of the 20th century.

--I thought about how much has changed in terms of our regional accents.  Even actors who are trying to do an outragious paraody of a Southern accent do not approach the syrup of O'Connor's voice.  And I've heard recordings of other Southerners of that time period, like LBJ and Strom Thurmond.  I'm fairly sure that goopy quality that makes the words almost unintelligible was standard.

--I feel the same way about many regional accents of the past, before television homogenized us all.  There are times when I hear a recording of one of the Kennedies, John or Robert, and I think, "What is he saying?"

--I've been revisiting the U.S. South in literature, as my online students are reading Ellison, Faulkner, and O'Connor.  I confess that I hadn't read Baldwin's "Battle Royal" or Faulkner's "That Evening Sun" before.  They were tough reads for me.

--The everyday racism and cruelty was what made them so hard--plus the knowledge that these stories aren't stretching the truth.  Lives were really that difficult in the stratified society of the pre-Civil Rights momvement.

--And yes, I'm sure there are places where the racism is still stark and brutal.  But now we have laws that prevent some of the worst behavior.

--And yes, I know that those laws don't help when people are so brutalized that they can't seek help.  But at least there are some protections.

--What I find most hopeful is the disbelief of my students.  They see this racism as something that no longer exists.  They express their disbelief in the realism of these stories.

--Perhaps they are naive and unrealistic.  But I prefer to believe that life in the U.S. has changed that substantially so that the works of some of our finest southern writers seem like they're from a distant time and place.

--And in a way, they are.  Faulkner wouldn't recognize his Mississippi today.  O'Connor would be amazed at how Georgia has changed.  Heck, I'm still amazed that this nation has elected a self-identified black man not once, but twice.

--Maybe soon, we'll elect a woman to the nation's highest office.  If South Carolina can elect the daughter of immigrants from India to be governor, it seems a distinct possibility to me that we might have a female president sooner rather than later.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing's Death and Our Own

Doris Lessing has died.  Let me say that differently:  Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has died.  If you've been reading my blog regularly, you know that I have confessed to never actually finishing her books.

I've tried.  Oh how I have tried.

In the 1980's, I started reading feminist authors in earnest. I subscribed to Ms. magazine. Doris Lessing's name kept coming up. So many of my favorite authors mentioned her work, and in particular, the book The Golden Notebook. I could hardly wait to read it.
I tried to slog through it during the summer of 1985. I was commuting to Southeast D.C., where I worked as a housing counselor for Lutheran Social Services--like President Obama, I was a community outreach organizer, of sorts. I tried to connect poor people to services and grant money. We had money to winterize houses, and we did that. I answered the phones and helped people file paperwork that would keep them from losing their homes. There were hours of downtime where I simply waited for the phone to ring and could read. Plus, I was commuting by bus and subway, which meant I had more time to read. I often carried numerous books with me.
I tried so hard to read The Golden Notebook. I wanted so much to like it. I just didn't. I finally gave up. Occasionally, I returned to Doris Lessing, but I could never finish her books.

I do wonder if I was just too young to appreciate The Golden Notebook.  That 19 year old college student, home for summer, commuting to her summer job, would not understand the problems of feeling fragmented.  The theme of developing an integrated self would appeal more to me now--but the fragmentation that Anna, the protaganist of that novel, was dealing with different challenges than I face now.  I don't face issues with my Communist comrades or with motherhood. 

Other feminist authors, like Marge Piercy and Erica Jong, were easier for my younger self to read and enjoy.  Maybe part of my problem with Lessing is that I expected her to be fairly straightforward in terms of her narrative style--she was not.  I was not prepared for a modernist play with perception and consciousness.  I expected her to be straightforward in terms of her politics and feminism--she was not.  I had problems with a narrator that was so flawed.
Later, in graduate school, I was happy to understand Lessing's place in British literature, but I had other female authors from the 20th century whom I liked better: Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch for example. I could write about Doris Lessing for my Comprehensive exams, but I never managed to actually finish any of her books.
I don't understand why I can like James Joyce but not Doris Lessing. Well, I suspect the key is having a good teacher. In graduate school, I had the fabulous Dr. Rice guide us through the works of Joyce. None of my grad school professors had us read Lessing. I suspect they felt the same way about her work that I did.
Still, I'm happy that her writings came when they did, that The Golden Notebook was there to guide the development of other feminist writers who would be so important to me.  I'm happy that she retained her feistiness until the end.  As I said earlier, I'm always happy when a female writer wins the Nobel prize, and I'm glad that Lessing could have that honor.  I suspect it didn't mean as much to her as it did to me, when her selection was announced.   It's sobering to me to realize how many of my favorite authors and musical artists are over the age of 70.  I'm not looking forward to continuing to write these kinds of memorials, as the creative people who have been so important to me leave this world.   It's time for the younger generations (me!?!) to begin/continue/finish our important work.  Like Doris Lessing, we may have to continue our work, even as people on all sides misinterpret or dismiss our work.  Or we may have gotten acclaim in our younger years and have to figure out how to approach our work as our middle years make different demands.  But the passing of Lessing reminds us that we're none of us here for very long.     We don't have time to waste.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Year Ago Today: Our Path to a New House

If you ask me to name a specific date where I thought moving to a new and better neighborhood might be possible, I'd refer to the progressive dinner that we had a year ago today.

Do you remember progressive dinners?  I remember progressive dinners as being very popular in the '70's.  You'd go to house #1 to have appetizers, house #2 to have salad, house #3 to have the main course, and on and on until the final house where dessert would be served.  And since it was the 70's, I'm guessing lots of alcohol was served along the way.

We'd been talking about having a progressive dinner ever since several of us at work realized that we lived within a mile or two of each other.  Because we're modern people, it took us awhile to find a date that worked for 4 couples.

That was the most complicated hurdle, but diet was close behind.  We have one friend who is a complete vegetarian, one who is mostly vegetarian but who will eat certain seafoods that are raised or harvested in a sustainable way--was one of us avoiding most dairy?  Anyway, it was slightly complicated, but not impossible.

We began at our house, because we were the furthest away.  We had appetizers.  My spouse made an amazing ceviche, and we served bruschetta.  Then we got in our cars and went to another house where we had 3 kinds of salad, and then on to the main course at a different house, and then we ended with brownie sundaes.  What fun!

Along the way we commented how much better it would be if we could have travelled by golf cart or by foot.  But since we lived so far away, that wasn't possible.

I kept quipping, "Maybe we'll move closer.  Then we can do this more often!"

The other 3 couples lived in the historic district, a place where I've assumed we'd never be able to live.  But as I looked around, I thought, if they can do it, we might could too.  After all, we didn't spend the evening with doctors and lawyers.  We were with librarians and teachers and counselors.  If they could swing the financing, maybe we could too.

My spouse and I spent Sunday talking about how much fun we had.  And since it was a Sunday during football season, it was probably noisy in our old neighborhood.  We talked about moving.  We looked at our finances.  We thought about other investments that could be liquidated to come up with a down payment.

November 17, 2012 was just a few days before Thanksgiving.  We continued our housing conversation during our drive to our Thanksgiving gathering place.  We talked about the possibility of moving with our family members. 

I expected them to say, "You've got a house that's paid for--you'd be crazy to move!"  They didn't.  They said, "You should move to the better neighborhood where your friends live."

Yes, that was the week of much encouragement, from the fun of a progressive dinner, to the approval of family members.

We knew we could start the process right away.  My spouse had just had an MRI and a consult, and we were pretty sure he'd be having surgery to cure his back pain.  We wanted to get that done first, so that if it cost more than we were expecting, we'd have the funds.

I've complained a lot about health insurance, but our plan came through for us.  We paid very little.  And my spouse has had an amazing recovery.

So, as we begin to turn our sights to Thanksgiving this year, I've got a lot to be grateful for.  I'm grateful for my spouse's restored health.  I'm grateful that our finances have survived many circumstances that could have sunk us.  I'm grateful for our journey that led us to this new, historic house.  I'm grateful for good friends and supportive family members who have accompanied us.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday Snippets: the Mid-November Edition

--November 16 already--how the time flies by!

--Today is the feast day of Saint Gertrude the Great--one of those medieval mystics.  As one of the earliest female writers in the Western tradition, she's important to me, even if I don't always share her theology.  For more, see this blog post that I wrote on my theology blog.

--In two weeks, we'll be packing up and leaving Thanksgiving behind.  If your family is like mine, the leftovers will have been devoured.  We'll turn our faces to Christmas, which will be a comfort.

--But a limited comfort. I love the time from early October to Christmas.  As we get closer to Christmas, I feel a twinge of sadness that soon my very most favorite time of year is coming to a close.

--Down here in the southernmost part of the United States, it feels like summer.  Well, it feels like summer nights at my grandmother's house long ago.  We'd lie down on cool sheets that were crisp from being dried on a line.  We'd listen to crickets and enjoy the cool air that came in the windows.

--I was in the pool yesterday.  Yes, it's mid-November, and I'm still swimming in the pool.  I needed to cool off quickly so that I could get ready for work.  It's not a summer swimming experience, but it's comfortable once the shock wears off.

--Or maybe the more correct word would be refreshing.

--I'm having a good writing morning, although I'm not writing the two short stories I have in mind.  I heard about the comments about Janet Yellen's clothing:  she wore the same suit to this week's confirmation hearing that she wore when President Obama announced her nomination. Shocking!

--Women will never be able to win when it comes to clothing.  A man can wear the same suit day after day, and no one will comment.  A man can have a closet full of khakis and jeans and face no commentary.  A woman who tries such a thing will face a barrage of criticism--often from poorly dressed people.

--And those thoughts led to a poem!  The poem went to surprising places and ended up commenting on tattered underclothing as metaphor for the conflicts in the modern woman's life, the frazzling schedule.

--I also got a poem from a friend's e-mail.  His smaller condo is fighting the plans of a developer who wants to put up a huge project beside their smaller condo.  He sent me a link about sea level rise and voiced his wish that the seas swallow up developers like the one he's fighting.  And thus, the next poem, where the future fish talk about our Ozymandias generation.

--Two poems in one morning--that will always be a good writing morning.

--Before we get too much closer to the controlled chaos that can be Thanksgiving, let me take a minute to think about my online classes this week-end.  Let me make sure we're all on track as we approach midterm for those classes, which is Nov. 18.

--Mid-November today--45 days left in the rapidly closing year.  Hard to believe.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Fragments: Notes from a Whirlwind Week

--Our friend moves into our cottage today. We have spent the last week getting it ready. We still have a few tasks (mini-blinds are up, but curtains aren't finished), but I'm hopeful that after this week-end, we'll be done, and she can settle into a peaceful existence in our cottage.

--I've used several days of leave this week. I still have PTO days to take, luckily. They vanish at the end of December. It's not the use of vacation time I might have envisioned, but it hasn't been too awful. Lots of trips to Home Depot. Lots of cleaning.

--My favorite memory will be the time at the end of each day, when my spouse and I sat by the pool and reflected. It's been a windy week, but still pleasant. Last night, the moon was mostly full, and the wind made interesting patterns in the clouds, which reflected the moonlight in interesting patterns. Lovely.

--On top of home repair, we've had some whirlwind visits. More on that later.

--I've still been going to work, for an hour here and an hour there. It all begins to feel surreal.

--And I've been logging onto my online classes, an hour here, two hours there.

--I feel a bit fragmented.  Maybe a lot fragmented.  It will be good to start reassembling the pieces.  It will be good to start the never-ending task of attacking the dust.

--In the midst of it all, moments of grace!  This morning I listened to an episode of NPR's On Point, where a group of scholars and writers talked about the just published prayer journal of Flannery O'Connor.  I wrote more about this, with a link to the program, in this post on my theology blog this morning.

--And I've really been enjoying discussing the readings with my ENC1102 class.  How interesting to watch them discovering Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" for the first time.  We had a bit of a side discussion of quilting.

--And I have an idea for not just one short story but two.  Now if I can only find time to write them.

--Here's a poem I wrote many years ago, as a hurricane approached, and we talked about our different feelings about the wind.  I hate windy days and nights; I associate wind with destruction.  My spouse loves the wind.  He'd sleep outside during windy weeks like this one, if we still had our hammock.    

Clean Sweep

While other folks board
up their windows,
she opens hers wide
to the hurricane winds.

She goes to the beach.
Unlike the surfers,
she has no interest in waves
that crash against the shore.

The sand abrades her skin.
The wind sweeps into every crevice.
Behind her, transformers pop and crackle.
Energy explodes.

Even though the palms bow
to the storm, she lifts
her arms above her head,
struggles to remain standing.
That night, she sleeps
soundly. Even though the wind
howls and hoots and hammers at the walls,
she breathes clean air and dreams fresh visions.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

All Sorts of Strength

Yesterday I headed out to spin class, only to find the elevators weren't working.  Luckily, I'm fit enough to take the stairs. 

You might say, "Of course you're fit enough.  That's why you go to spin class, right?"

Indeed.  But our gym that has the spin class is on the 8th floor of the doctor's office building that's attached to a downtown hospital.  Many of the people who come to that gym are recovering from some kind of acute health issue, like a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis.  We're not all fit enough to take the stairs.

Even some of my fellow spin class members grumbled mightily.

It's been a tough week for our gym.  On Monday we showed up to find out that the air conditioning wasn't working.  It wasn't as hot as it was outside, but it was stuffy.  We did our spin class anyway.

I thought of the days of my wayward youth, where I'd go out in the heat of the day and run 6 miles.  Even in the middle of the hottest summers I did this.  I liked to sweat and sweat and sweat.  I felt purified at the end.

Even today, I like exercise because it's one of the few places where sweating is encouraged.  I suspect not everyone would agree with me.  The other night we were watching a Zumba class.  Now that is not an exercise for me.  It feels too sexualized.  I go to exercise class to get away from the relentless cultural pressure to have a super-sexy body.

I want to be strong.  If that seems super-sexy to some people, that's fine, but that's not why I'm at the gym.

I have begun to see the world as divided into Zumba women and women who hike the Appalachian Trail and those who hike the AT alone with only a canteen.  Maybe I'm just kidding about the last one--maybe not.

The other day I went with my friend to the post office, and I carried her tub of packages.  She said, "Let me carry the heaviest one." 

I said, "It's balanced this way.  And it's not very far."

She has physical issues so she parked in a handicapped space.  It was only 50 steps, if that.  If I can't carry a tub of packages that far, why do I work out with weights?

It's interesting to think about the ways that strength doesn't transfer to other tasks.  We've been doing a variety of home repairs during this year, and I'm amazed at the weight of a cordless drill.  I can't hold it up while also managing to drill a hole straight and true.

I used to joke that I don't have the upper body strength to do my hair.  I don't have that kind of upper body strength, the kind where I can hold my arms above my head for very long.  I can carry a heavy load--last week, I moved a 60 pound back of concrete/mortar mix from the car to the backyard.  Yet I can't hold my arms over my head.

It's probably like that in my writing life too.  I'm at a peculiar time where my writing friends are having success in the form of publishing contracts.  And I'm wondering what's wrong with me.  Why haven't I been chosen?

Luckily, I'm not going to live in a scarcity consciousness world.  It's great that I haven't been chosen at this point.  I can't imagine how to fit one more project into this busy time.  When I accepted the offer to teach not one, but two, online classes in 8 weeks, I knew that my writing would take a back seat.  Hopefully, only for 8 weeks.

I'm still getting writing done, just in smaller spurts.  And should a publisher call with an offer, I'd gladly figure out how to take advantage of the opportunity.

In some ways, my daily writing--the blogging, the thinking about my larger writing projects, the dribs and drabs of work on said projects--is the daily exercise class.  Should the 8 story stairwell of a publisher call with an offer, I have the training in place to allow me the strength to meet the challenge. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can a Smart Phone Sin?

Today is the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in 354.  You may be saying, "Save it for your theology blog."   But he's important to remember, even if we're not religious people.  I could make the argument that Augustine wrote the first memoir in our Western tradition.  So many of us are working in genres shaped by the kind of memoir he pioneered.  Would we have had bloggers without Augustine?

Augustine was my favorite when I took a class that covered medieval Philosophy.  I loved his The Confessions.  I admired his honesty.  What a catalog of sins!  He believed that we couldn't escape our sinful nature.  He spent part of his life indulging in all sorts of sinful behavior and part of his life trying not to do that. 

Later theologians turned these ideas into the oppressive philosophy about sin and worthiness that some of us grew up desperate to escape.  But Augustine's ideas were not oppressive in that same way.

If you wanted, you could make a case for Augustine as one of the most important thinkers in the history of the Church. We can trace our ideas about original sin and grace back to him. His thinking about God and God's existence outside of time has been enormously influential. His views of just war continue to be debated. His confessional style continues in writing to this day.

But if you don't feel like remembering medieval philosophers, you could celebrate the birth of the World Wide Web.  It's fascinating to read how it happened; The Writer's Almanac gives us a summary in this post.

It is true that there was an Internet before there was a World Wide Web.  But it was the World Wide Web that made the Internet accessible to so many of us.  What would life be without hyperlinks?  The first incarnations of the WWW didn't have much video--who could afford such computing power?  But now we carry that kind of computing power in our phones.  We live in amazing times.

Some of us early adopters of the Web might feel sad at how much it's been commercialized.  But I'm happy to be able to do so much of my shopping and bill paying without leaving the house.  I remember the days of going to the library to do research.  And when I didn't have access to a university or college library, I had to hope that the local public library would have what I need.  Now I have more information than I can possibly use--and because of the World Wide Web, I can access it.

Will we some day celebrate the birthdays of electronic systems the way that we do earlier writers and artists?  It's an intriguing possibility.  As we create machines that are ever more intelligent and capable of making connections that we wouldn't have come up with on our own, it's not inconceivable to me.

What would the feast day of the World Wide Web look like?  Would we have special foods?  Would we have the blessing of the computers?  We bless our pets in some churches, to commemorate the feast day of St. Francis.  Why not bless our smart phones?  They are every bit as much our companions as our pets.  You could argue that the consciousness of a smart phone is far vaster than the consciousness of a pet.

If Augustine lived today, he'd likely wrestle with these issues.  Are smart phones born with a sinful nature?  Will they have a place in Heaven?  Can a smart phone commit a sin?

Perhaps you have your own ideas--go ahead and write them down.  Maybe in two thousand years we'll celebrate you as the theologian most important to the electronic age.

Monday, November 11, 2013

How Should Creative Types Celebrate Veteran's Day?

Pre-dawn of another Veteran's Day, cloudy, windy, and with a threat of rain. Before today was Veteran's Day, it was Armistice Day, the day that celebrated the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. In some ways, it's not a hard holiday to celebrate. Any event that restores peace in our time is worth some sober meditation.

However, those of us who know our history may be chastened by the knowledge of what was to come. The end of World War I planted the seeds that would blossom into World War II. World War I brought carnage on a level never before seen--but World War II would be even worse.

Why is it so hard for humans to remain at peace? There are whole series of books that address this question, so I won't attempt it here. Still, today is a good day to offer extra prayers for sustained peace in our time. World War I and all the other wars of the 20th century offer us vivid examples of the horrible consequences of the lack of peace.

Those of us lucky enough to live in a land that's not currently wracked by war might think about our luck.  We might strengthen our resolve to quit wasting time and to start/continue/finish the work we were put on this earth to do.  History shows us that we can't always or even often count on peace.  The world plunges into war for the flimsiest of reasons:  an archduke is assassinated, and the world goes up in flames.

So if we have stability now, let us seize the day.  Let us not waste time on Facebook, bad movies, wretched television, or any of the other countless ways we've devised to waste our freedom.  Generations of humans have laid down their lives to secure us this precious liberty; let's resolve that their blood hasn't been shed just so that we can fritter day after day away.

If we haven't always done a good job of shepherding our talents, let's declare today to be Armistice Day.  Let's forgive ourselves for every opportunity we haven't followed.  Let's see if any of those doors are still open to us.  And if not, let's rest easy in the assurance that there will be new doors if only we stay alert for them.

For those of us who are activists, we might think about how to use our talents to create a world where we practice war no more.  Or maybe we want to raise funds for those who are damaged by war.  On a day like Veteran's Day, it seems appropriate.  We can be the voices for those who have been cruelly silenced.

For those of us who teach, we might want to think about how artists and writers might speak to current generations, many of whom do not know any veterans.  On Veteran's Day, which began as Armistice Day, you might bring the work of Wilfred Owen into your classrooms.  You can find some poems at this site; I particularly like "Anthem for Doomed Youth."   Pair this poem with some artistic works,  perhaps the works of Picasso that look at war, a work like "Guenica" (here's a site with the image).  For this generation of instant access to facts and information, it would be worth discussing whether or not creative explorations enrich our understanding of war and its aftermath.  Is photography and documentary film more worthwhile?  Another kind of art?

For those of us who are spiritual, we could spend time today staying mindful of the older holiday of Armistice Day, and the modern incarnation of Veteran's Day.  We can remember to give thanks for the sacrifices of so many who have made my domestic peace possible.  We can pray for the government leaders of all our countries, in the hopes that they'll continue to avert catastrophes of all sorts, from the economic to the armed conflict to the planet destroying variety.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Snippets

--My writer friend shared a story with me that she had written.  It had an interesting meditation on blueness.  Is it the quality of twilight that makes the characters seem blue?  Their inner sadness?

--She was worried that Western readers might not understand her story, as it is rooted in Hindu myth and story.  But even before she explained the background to me, I enjoyed the story.

--My skin is not blue, but partly purple.  My fingers have different shades of purple on them.  Have I been writing purple prose?  I'll let you be the judge of that.  No, I've been helping to paint the cottage.

--I say helping because the main bulk of the work was done by the spouse and his manly paint sprayer.  I have followed with my lady-like paint brush, dipping and dabbing and doing touch up.

--The cottage is finally beginning to look like a place where I would be happy to live or vacation.

--The problem with renovating our first two houses, especially the Goose Creek, SC house that required lots of work:  it's hard for me to live with the knowledge of the guts of a house.  I remember the first time I saw the structure underneath the subflooring.  We'd been walking on those joists?  Why were they spaced so far apart?  Shouldn't we have more of them?

--It's hard for me to trust centuries of engineering when it comes to dwellings.

--I find myself missing our old hurricane shutters that looked like awnings, even though engineers would say those were not as good as the shutters in our new house.  But the last 2 nights, I've awakened with rain coming in the open window.

--At first, it was lovely, a light mist, a dewy kiss.  Then it was annoying.

--In our old house, the old-style awnings/shutters would have kept the rain out.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Life Events as Spiral/Circle

There have been many moments in the past few weeks where I've looked up to wonder at the cyclical nature of life.  What year is it exactly?  Here are some examples:

--I'm teaching two online classes, which has made me feel like a first year teacher again.  I'm so enthusiastic about my students.  I'm so thrilled with how the classes are going.  I'm a bit afraid that I'll screw it up somehow--although this time, it's more about the technology and less about the teaching.  When I first started, there was no technology more complicated than my piece of chalk.  It was years later when televisions and VCRs became standard fixtures in classrooms.  And when I first started teaching, computers were so important that you wouldn't just leave them unattended in classrooms.

--I'm helping my spouse with a variety of home repairs.  It takes me back to our early days of fixing up the wrecks of repossessed houses that we bought.  The second house in Goose Creek, South Carolina needed lots of work.  We built walls where there were none.  We did wiring and plumbing.  We put in every variety of flooring.  We built a huge deck.  We didn't have to do any roofing, but that's about all we didn't do (although in our first house, we re-roofed a shed, so we could have done it, if we had needed to).

--Those home repair/improvement shows don't show the mountains of wasted raw materials: the tiles that cracked in the wrong place, the carpet cut in the wrong place, the gobs of masonry/plaster/paste that we thought we'd need but didn't, the lumber that split the wrong way when the saw hit it.  No one fights on a home repair show.  No one hurls tools in anger/disgust/frustration.  No one dissolves into weeping.

--Happily, these days, we have fewer meltdowns (either the sadness kind, the frustration kind, or the anger kind).  We know that home repair comes with a particular kind of challenges.  Fortunately, there are also joys.

--Yesterday we went to buy fabric for the curtains we will make for the cottage.  It seems we've been making curtains for a long time.  Or perhaps it's that we've come full circle.  Once, when we were poor grad students, we made curtains out of remnants because it was a cheap way to cover the windows.  As we earned more money, we bought a variety of blinds from foreign factories.  No matter how much we spent, they always looked plastic and cheap to me--even when they were made out of wood.  Now we're back to fabric and handmade curtains.

--But some things don't change.  Yesterday I used a coupon that give us 25% off our entire purchase, regardless of whether or not we bought things on sale.  So, the material was 30% off, and then we got an additional 25% off--and I was so thrilled.

--The woman who measured out our fabric did it very precisely--so unlike the days when you'd get an extra 1/8 or 1/4 yard of fabric.  Perhaps that's why we no longer have Piece Goods stores.

--We finished the day with bowls of ice cream, the lowfat kind.  These days, there are so many more delicious varieties of lowfat ice cream.  If you have a Publix grocery store in your area, try Coconut Road lowfat ice cream.  Yum!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rough Drafts, Peer Editing, and the Online Class

First a confession:  long ago, in grad school when I was last surrounded by a critical mass of Comp-Rhet folks, I learned all about the writing process.  I had the enthusiasm of a new convert; you know what they say, "No vert like a convert."  I marched into my Composition classrooms and extolled the virtues of pre-writing, which we did together, mapping on the chalkboard, drawing arrows, doing freewriting.  We wrote rough drafts and final drafts.  We revised and made those final drafts better.

Along the way we did peer editing.  It's the only piece of the writing process puzzle that never, ever worked in a classroom.  I will not talk about all the failed experiments and frustrations.  I will just note that years ago, I gave up on the process and peer editing left my syllabus.

Fast forward to the online class I'm teaching now, Composition II.  Adjuncts teaching online get a course shell with all the curriculum already created.  My younger teacher self would have chafed at that.  My older, more tired with more commitments mid-life self is relieved.

I had wondered how peer editing would go in an online environment.  If students could be together in a group and not pull it off, how much worse might it be online?

I'm here to report that our first experience has been great.  Students post their own rough drafts in the discussion area with a short post about what worries them about their rough drafts.  I was pleasantly surprised at their ability to do this.

Then they had to choose at least one rough draft and write a response.  The response had to include 3 things they liked about the paper and 3 things that needed work.  Most students did a fairly good job at this.  And about 1/3 of the class commented on more than one paper--hurrah!

Sure, there was still the post that said, "Gee, I thought your essay was really good, and I'm not sure what changes to suggest."  But even those posters, for the most part, talked about what they liked about the paper.

I, too, had a chance to comment on rough drafts.  The final drafts are due tomorrow.  I'm interested to see how students do.  They've had all sorts of feedback.  Will they turn in stronger drafts?  For those who can carve out some time, I suspect their drafts will be stronger.

It's been just a few years since I taught.  When I last taught, we were just adopting our Learning Management System, eCompanion.  I didn't have students submit electronically.  Oh how much has changed in just a few years.

Yesterday, as I was commenting on rough drafts, I thought, wow, this is so much easier than writing notes by hand.  I could insert comments directly into paragraphs where I saw problems appearing--no need to stuff comments into cramped margins.

It will be interesting to see if I continue to feel this happy about the rough draft and peer editing process.  I know that I may just have the luck to have an exceptional class.  Or maybe it's something about the online environment.  Maybe both.

Each part of the process gets a grade, so there's incentive to participate.  Still, long ago, I used to do that too, and didn't have the same kind of luck.  I remember students showing up without rough drafts or with just a paragraph.  In the online environment, the unprepared don't derail the whole process, although I suppose enough unprepared people might.  The online environment helps in other ways too:  students can participate at a time when they're feeling up to it.  They can take their time in reading. 

When I last did peer editing with a class, they brought hand-written rough drafts and sat in a circle.  They had 5-8 minutes per draft and a feedback sheet to fill out.  As I look back, I'm not surprised that the process didn't work well.  I know many an expert who can't read and respond to papers that quickly.  And I expected students who were new to the process to be able to do that?

When I started teaching this online class, I confess that I expected the experience to be different from the onground teaching, and it has been.  I didn't anticipate that there would be ways that the online environment would actually be better than onground.  What a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Turn the Knob the Other Way

I could write about the bizarre bullying/hazing/extortion incident/allegations with the Miami Dolphins and the player with the remarkable last name of Incognito--it will be some time before that guy goes incognito anywhere.

I could write about the mayor of Toronto who admits to smoking crack.  There's a video.  Why is this man not arrested yet?  I know, I know--it's Canada, it's different, but surely the laws of Toronto do not allow for crack smoking.

I could write about the ways my yesterday wearied me, from the not being able to find my elementary school where I was supposed to start--finally--the Reading Pals program to the incredibly expensive pizza that wasn't as fabulous as the price would suggest.  The good news is that the elementary school didn't expect me until next week, so there was no child sitting and wondering where I was and already feeling abandoned.  The pizza was edible, and it's not the first or the last time that we'll pay too much for dinner.

No, let me focus on what's bringing me joy this week.  We discovered that the cottage at the back of our new house property does have hot water.

You're probably saying, "Hot water?  You're going to write a post about hot water?"

Let me explain.  We bought the house with its separate cottage in July, and we've been doing a variety of home improvement projects.  We've been focused on the cottage in the back.  We knew it had hot water at some point, because there's a shower, and who puts in a cold-water only shower?  But back in July, the hot water delivery system didn't seem to be functioning. 

We've been on the lookout for where a hot water heater might have once been in the cottage, without luck.  We tried to figure out the piping.  It seemed that hot water had once gone to the cottage from the main house.  But the shower had nothing but cold water when my spouse let it run.  We asked other neighborhood people about their cottages.

My spouse had determined that we needed to put in a hot water heater.  He was researching on-demand systems--more efficient to be sure, but requiring new plumbing and new wiring, and thus, more expensive.

In the meantime, he replaced the vanity/sink combo in the bathroom and reconnected the plumbing there.  On Tuesday, I said, "Let's just try the hot water again."  We turned on the shower--cold water again. 

After a few minutes, I turned the water on at the sink.  I turned the new fixture one way and then the other--wait, was that water slightly warmer? 

I called my spouse over.  He said, "It's warm, but not hot."  But then it was hot.

However, the shower was still cold.  So, I tried the oldest trick in the book.  I turned the knob the other way.  And voila!  Hot water!!!

I know, I know.  From a distance, it still makes no sense to be so ecstatic.  But it was a problem that I just couldn't figure out; the relief of figuring out a problem that shouldn't be so thorny in the first place cannot be understated.

It's also about the money we're saving and the headache.  Plumbing strikes fear into my heart, especially plumbing that requires soldering, which is not a skill set that anyone I know has.  I have seen the damage that faulty plumbing can do.  I have seen my husband turn into a snarling wreck of a human when the plumbing isn't going well.  Now it seems we can avoid that.

And it's saving us time.  We have a friend who will be moving into the cottage soon.  Every project that we can cross off our list is a gift.  And a huge project that's unexpectedly solved?  Much delight.

Psychologists could probably offer all sorts of reasons to explain my mental state.  Part of me does wonder how to duplicate this joy.  Part of me thinks about the lessons for larger life.

When stymied for a solution, it doesn't hurt to try the obvious solution one more time, especially if it's a cheap solution.  Why did the hot water work in November, when it didn't in July?  Perhaps because it took awhile for the pipes to remember how to work.  But pipes are inanimate objects, after all, so that's probably not it.  Perhaps it was just a matter of turning the knob the other way and waiting for a minute.  We're so used to getting hot water by turning the knob to the left--we never thought of turning the knob to the right--until we did, and it worked.

Turn the knob the other way--it seems like a metaphor for many things.  It seems like a great slogan.

I like that the fix is simple and elegant.  I like that it requires us to think outside the box--but not very far outside the box.  Maybe just to open the box lid.

Turn the knob the other way.  Perhaps I'll try to do that every day.  No, that's too exhausting.  But several times a week, I'd like to think about my life that way.  What might change if I just turned the knob the other way? 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Technology Invades the Conference Landscape

--Our panel presentation at the conference on Sunday went very well.  I was pleased with how our ideas worked together, and yet, we were different, both in content and in technology.  I had no Powerpoint presentation, and I was sandwiched between 2 presenters who did.

--I mention that fact because I am struck by how much Powerpoint and Prezzies have become part of the conference landscape.  Once upon a time we wouldn't have counted on the technology being available and working.  Now, we get grumpy when things go wrong.

--If I ever make the shift to presenting with a slide show of some kind, I vow to do a preview of my slides.  I vow to go to the back of the room to see if people can read the print.

--Most of all, I vow to make more slides with less information per slide.  Most of the presentations that I saw on Sunday had FAR TOO MUCH writing on each slide.  It was unreadable from a distance.  There's no need to put every scrap of information on the slide.  That's the point of a presentation, right?  You'll elaborate, right?  We, your audience, will take notes if need be.

--I'm also amazed by how technology has invaded the audience space.  On Sunday in the large sessions, so many people were pecking away on their laptops, tablets, and smart phones.  I'd like to think they were taking notes, but I could see many a screen, and I can report that they were not.

--No, people were checking their e-mail, checking their papers/Powerpoints which they'd present later, working on research for other projects, researching where to eat lunch.  I kept thinking about the astonishingly high cost of the conference ($265 for early registration--I've never paid that much for a conference).  If it bores you, why come?

--I know, I know, there are many reasons.  Still, you don't need to sit in the audience.  It's a beautiful hotel by a beautiful beach.  Go enjoy.

--It's not a great few days to be enjoying the beach.  We've had astonishing winds:  20-40 mph with huge gusts.  Seas are at 12 feet.

--So maybe that's why people stayed put in the conference room.  Or maybe they think they can multitask.

--Is it better to be part of the audience, even when we can't stay focused?  At least our electronics keep us quiet.

--Except for when they don't.  I was astonished when one woman took a call on her cell phone and went to the back of the room.  We could still hear her.  Luckily, someone wrote that fact on a piece of paper and showed it to her.  Luckily, her obliviousness/rudeness was pierced, and she left the room.

--But honestly, it should be a given of modern tech manners:  if you need to talk on the phone, and you're somewhere where someone else has the floor, you need to leave the room.  No matter how softly you think you're speaking, you're still audible, and we'll all notice.  And many of us will think uncharitable thoughts about you.

--One woman told me that she plays Candy Crush Saga on her phone when she needs something to keep her hands busy.  It's certainly more compact than dragging one's knitting everywhere.

--I know that at some point I will break down and buy a smart phone.  I will wonder how I ever lived without it.  I will find it hard to resist the pull of technology, especially if I'm at a meeting/presentation that's less than compelling.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Look Back at Halloween Week

This week has not turned out to have the memories I thought it might.  I thought that since we're in a more pedestrian-friendly area, we'd have more trick-or-treaters.  I had a vision of sitting on our porch, sipping wine, handing out candy.

We had 5 trick-or-treaters.  I wish I could say that we are resisting the temptation to eat the leftover candy, but we are not.

Still, it was a good week.  Here are some highlights:

--I had several meals with a variety of friends.  All of them were good, and they all nourished me in more ways than just the food.

--I went to two Halloween spin rides.  On Wednesday, we rode to the music of AC/DC while Night of the Living Dead played on the screen.  In an odd way, it worked.  On Thursday, we rode to specially selected music.  It was a week of great workouts.

--This was the week where I began to be more open about the fact that I'm teaching online classes at Broward College.  So maybe I'll write more about that in the coming weeks.

--In the meantime, let me say how much I'm enjoying those classes.  I'm impressed with the depth of my students' posts on the discussion boards.  It's good to be back in the world of discussions of literature.

--I reworked a blog post of Kathleen Flennikan's Plume for a journal.  I saw the publication of a blog post on the Living Lutheran site.  I'm happy about being asked to do those things.

--And today, I present a paper at the Society for the Study of Human Development--so, not much time to write this morning.  Time to get ready . . .

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Writing Poetry on the Feast of All Souls

Today is the Feast of All Souls. You might be confused--didn't we just celebrate this holiday yesterday?

No, that was All Saints. All Saints was originally designed to honor the saints, those who had been beatified. Official saints, canonized by the Pope.

All Souls Day, celebrated the day after All Saints, was designed to honor everyone else who had died.

For more on the spiritual aspects of this day, go to this post on my theology blog.  Here's my favorite bit from that blog post:  "Soon we will be skating down the corridor which takes us to Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a time of breathless pace for many of us. Let us take another day to remember the souls of those gone before us. Let us think of our own mortal souls which will not be on this earth for a very long time. Let us resolve to strengthen our spiritual lives, so that we serve as living lanterns for those coming after us."

Too much religious language for you?  Change the language to one that talks about your artistic life.  Let me try:

Soon we will be skating down the corridor which takes us to Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a time of breathless pace for many of us. Let us take another day to remember the artists before us. Let us think of ourselves which will not be on this earth for a very long time. Let us resolve to strengthen our creative lives, so that we serve as living lanterns for those coming after us.  Let us recommit to our creative projects, now, before the holidays overtake us.

I have taken my own advice.  Before I started blogging, I wrote a poem from start to finish this morning.  I hate to think about how rare that's becoming.  When writing that piece at my theology blot, I had an image of a lonely woman, her loved ones laid to rest in distant graveyards, preparing a picnic anyway on the Day of the Dead.  I created a few lines.  Maybe I'll have another poem by the end of this triduum.

Yesterday I came across a reference piece that talked about the triduum of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. Triduum means "three days," but I've only ever heard of it used as the time period between Good Friday and Easter.

But I digress.  I began the morning by reading Beth's excellent post which inspired my own thoughts about riding the Metro in Miami.  I remember the young black man with dreads who was slowly working his way through Moby Dick.  One morning a guy in tattered clothes was asking each commuter to give him some money so that he could get home.  The guy with dreads gave him his multi-ride Metro card, which I thought was a brilliant solution.

I couldn't resist asking him how much was left on the card.  He held up 3 fingers.  So, he wasn't out much money, but the destitute man had a way to get home.  Everyone wins!

I remember another trip when a young black man leapt to the front of the subway car and shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention!"  We shifted uneasily as the guy opened his case.

He pulled out a violin and as the sunset bathed us in the perfect shade of rosy light, he played.  People smiled and put money in his violin case.

I've been looking for a way to use that image in a poem for years now.  Perhaps this morning I succeeded.  I threw in some Halloween images, the skeletons of condos straining to the sky, the Metro as a jack-o-lantern. 

Now it's time to get ready for my Saturday.  But we all have an extra hour tonight as we change the clocks back:  let's resolve to spend that time on our creative work.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Feast of All Saints for Writers, Artists, and Other Creative Types

Halloween, All Hallows Eve--have you thought about how we came to have that holiday?  Have you thought about Halloween as All Saints Eve?  Today is the Feast of All Saints. Traditionally, this day celebrates the saints who have gone on before us. Traditionalists would not approve of what this church festival has become. Most churches celebrate All Saints Day as the day we celebrate the lives of all our loved ones who have died, whether they were consistently saintly or not. Traditionalists would only celebrate the lives of the truly beatified and the lives of those martyred for the faith.  Many modern churches will take this Sunday to celebrate the lives of our loved ones who have died.

This holiday has implications for those of us who are creative--and we should all be creative.  Even if we think of ourselves as non-spiritual, there are practices from this feast day that we can adopt to enrich our lives.

--Let's begin with something simple.  Light a candle as you remember the faithful in your life who have nourished you. You could expand your thoughts to those who you didn't know who nonetheless have bolstered your creative life.  Take a moment to feel gratitude for the writers, artists, chefs, and all of those who make us want to create.  Remember all the ways they've supported us and the work that has meant so much.

--Go a step further.  Write a card of thanks and put it in the mail.  Your family members who supported you would love to hear from you.  Write your parents to thank them for giving you the art supplies and letting you make a mess.  Write to your high school drama teacher.  Write to your favorite author.

--Be inspired by the variety of ways that Latino cultures celebrate the Day of the Dead.  This year I'm inspired by the altars that people create.  Create an altar of your own.  It could be an installation type project or it could be part of a bookshelf.  Gather objects that mean something to you.  Decorate the space with fabric or tissue paper or festive ribbons.

--Make a picnic and take it to a graveyard, another inspiration from Day of the Dead activities.  Look at the tombstones.  Make up stories about the dead.

--Or don't make up stories.  Today is a good day to remember your family and start writing them down. You won't remember them forever. And there will be younger generations who will be starving for those stories. If you write them in a blog, hopefully, they'll be there forever.

--Rosemary is a symbol of remembrance, so today is a great day to make something with the herb. How about a chicken, roasted with rosemary, lemon, and garlic? Vegetarians can make a tasty bean soup with the same trio of rosemary, lemon, and garlic--add several cans of beans (whirled up in the blender, if you prefer a thicker soup) to your pot of rosemary, lemon, and garlic, and you've got an easy delicious soup. Throw in some steamed carrot pieces for an even more nutritious soup.

--It's never too early to think about spring.  In many parts of the United States, now would be a great time to plant bulbs. Then in the spring, you'll have an additional treat.