Sunday, August 31, 2014

Homemade Granola Bars

On Friday, I went back to an old recipe.  One of my favorite spin class instructors was driving to North Carolina to start a 3 month time away, and I wanted to create a care package of sorts, something to eat during the trip.  But my spin instructor only eats healthy food, and doesn't eat dairy--so a lot of my cookie recipes wouldn't work.

I thought of the breakfast bar type cookies I used to make, from a recipe I found in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu.  It's infinitely adaptable, very portable, and keeps well.  If you like crisper bars, you spread the batter more thinly across the cookie sheets.  If you want something more like a cookie, you use a thicker spread.

It's one of those recipes that can be made quickly, a bonus for the busy days that leave us longing for something homemade, nourishing, and portable.  And if you're cooking for a crowd, it's easily doubled.

Homemade Granola Bars

2 C. oats
1 1/2 C. whole wheat flour
1/4 C. wheat germ and/or flax seeds
spices, like cinnamon, to taste--1 tsp. or so
6 T. brown sugar (can be increased, decreased, or left out)
1/2 C. of nuts (can be increased, decreased, or left out)
1 C. apple juice, orange juice or water
1/2 C. vegetable oil (can be olive oil; can be partially apple sauce)
1 C. raisins or cranberries or other dried fruit, chopped--can be left out
A handful/sprinkle of coconut--or not

Mix everything together and spread across a greased cookie sheet.  Bake at 375 for half an hour.

Cut into squares while still warm.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Frankenstein Finishing School

Last month, I read Luisa Igloria's Facebook post which was actually Dean Young's "Romanticism 101," which you can find here. I thought about my morning's blog post (I had spent the morning having great fun writing the post that gave life lessons from Wuthering Heights) and wondered if it could be constructed as a kind of poem.

As I cut and pasted, then I thought of a series of Life Lesson poems from Romantic literature, so I decided to do the same thing for Frankenstein

 I pulled Frankenstein off the shelf, just to double check my memory. I had forgotten that the book is so full of such lonely people, people who are isolated even when they're with others.

I thought about Mary Shelley's life of abandonment: mother dead in giving birth to her, father preoccupied with new family, husband who will always be fascinated with others before an early death, dead babies, life on the run from creditors, . . . oh, Mary Shelley!

Since today is Mary Shelley's birthday, I'll celebrate by posting life lessons from Frankenstein:

--Some pursuits are not worth the price.

--It’s wonderful to recycle, but beware the impulse to animate.

--If you mistreat your creations, it will not end well for you.

--Name your creations, lest they be named after you.

--We’re all looking for a family.

--Do not underestimate the rage of the rejected.

--If you’re warned about someone’s destructive nature, pay attention.

--If, in an alien landscape, you see a man on a sledge, do not get sucked in.

--Yes, you’re lonely in an ice-encrusted sea.  Do not hail the stranger.

--You thought that nature would be your solace.  It may be your curse.

--Some pursuits are not worth the price.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Jane Eyre Deus Ex Machina

I was talking to a friend about the likelihood of winning the lottery.  When my spouse took statistics, he learned that if you booked a flight to Beijing and flew there on the same day and got off the plane and saw your best friend from high school in the airport in Beijing--that scenario is statistically more likely than the winning the lottery scenario.

I haven't bought a lottery ticket since.

"Where is my trust fund?"  I wailed.  But I have friends who have warned me of the danger of the trust fund--so many trust funds result in so many ungrateful recipients.

I said to my friend, "I wish I could get an inheritance.  Wouldn't that be a nice surprise?  But from a distant relative who dies, not from anyone I love dying.  A distant relative whom I didn't even know existed."

My friend winked at me.  "You mean like in Jane Eyre?"

I didn't even recognize that plot device until she said it.  But it's true.  Why yes, I'd like a distant uncle.  I'd like a small inheritance, one that's big enough to share, but not one that's big enough to be ruinous.

I recognize that I've been shaped by 19th century literature, by how many of those books I loved rely on this kind of deus ex machine deliverance of just enough money--but often only after some struggles.  It's enough money that the mail character doesn't have to keep doing whatever soul-deadening (and in some cases life threatening) tasks that must be done to keep bread on the table.  And that bread is often minimal, and on a very rickety table that's under a leaky roof.

The small inheritance allows them to live the life that will allow them to blossom--but it's not enough money that they can live recklessly.  For Jane Eyre, she can return to Rochester, the man she loves.  The money means she won't be dependent on him.  And his injuries from the fire make them true equals.

It's an amazing book, in its exploration of how gender and class inform issues of power.  But so many 19th century novels show this awareness.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte shows the corrupting power of money.  I'm in agreement with her.  So, no lottery winnings--but a small inheritance from an unknown uncle would be nice.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Prophetic Writing at the Periphery

Paul Elie has a fascinating blog post about Flannery O'Connor.  He's been traveling in Africa, and he sees that region, the Global South, as very similar to O'Connor's South, the U.S. South of the middle of the 20th century, so different from the U.S. South of today.

This part will stick with me all day.  First he quotes himself from an earlier lecture that he gave:  "Her work will make sense when the “Protestant South” is the territory of Central and South America. It will make sense when the admirable nihilist, the practitioner of a do-it-yourself Christianity, is an oilworker on a derrick in Nigeria or a “house Christian” in Beijing. It will make sense because she looked forward, not back—looked forward imaginatively through the “realism of distances,” another term for prophecy."

And then he continued:  "Well, to travel in southern Africa is to know that this is true already – or rather, that it has become more true in this part of the global South while it has become less true in Atlanta and Louisville and New Orleans.  The coexistence of races, and the separation of the races; the busyness and disorganization and drama of public life at streetside and open market; the do-it-yourself churches with their creeds handpainted on the walls outside; the constancy of poverty; the sense that life is precious, because life is dangerous, and one’s own survival is not assured – all these are recognizable in the big cities, the villages, the townships of South Africa."

He talks about writers who speak to the periphery and how the periphery is larger than we imagine.  I have spent much of my life thinking about writers who either choose to depict life in the margins/periphery or writers who have been marginalized, which can be a different group.

I have been thinking about writers who are trying to create work that builds bridges between cultures who haven't often talked to each other.  I've thought about my own work, as I've been creating a query letter for Phoenicia Publishing.  Could my work, that's coming out of a Christian tradition, appeal to my atheist friend?

I don't always think of myself as writing from the periphery, but I am working at a for-profit school, a marginalized place in some ways for people from a traditional academic background.  I am a Christian in a world that feels indifferent to faith--and I feel fortunate for the indifference, as I am well aware that in many parts of the world, I wouldn't be just marginalized but under threat of death.  And I am also an artist making my way in a capitalist world, an immigrant/pilgrim of a different sort.

In a way, I feel I'm claiming a title that I don't deserve by claiming my status as writing from the periphery.  After all, I'm solidly middle class, with resources that many middle class people don't have.  I have multiple degrees.  I exercise and eat sensibly most days.  I have a rather boring life, where I go to work every week day and return at night to a loving husband. 

Can this be the world where prophetic visions are birthed?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jackhammering in the Holocene Extinction

This morning I'm very tired, a Friday kind of tired.  I had to be at school for an 8:30 conference call, and I stayed until 5:30, when I left to end the day with a church council meeting half way across the county.  It was a good meeting, more like dinner with friends, but it still put me home later than I'm used to.

And my work day was exhausting.  My school is now next to a construction site, as yet another plot of land gets transformed into parking garages and high end shopping and condos.  Yesterday, right under my office window, the workers were breaking up concrete for most of the day.  The loud jackhammers made my desk vibrate slightly, and my head vibrate mightily.

My head would have been aching anyway.  We're beginning the task of getting the files into order for the accreditation visit in 3 weeks.  It must be done, and I'm paid good money to shepherd the task.  But it means paying attention to minute details, which is not my strong suit.

I know, you think that because I majored in English that I must be great at proofreading.  I am not.  If you wanted me to fill the files with figurative language and intriguing symbolism, I could do that.  If you wanted me to do literary analysis of the syllabi, I could do that.  But to find every last error?  Not my strong suit.

In a way, it's a shame, since assessment, institutional effectiveness, and compliance are some of the fastest growing areas of higher ed.  But I just can't imagine spending every day of my work life doing what I've been doing yesterday.

But I'm lucky in many ways, not the least of which is that I'm not the guy jackhammering concrete in 95 degree heat all morning and afternoon.  To remember that, let me post a poem:

Life in the Holocene Extinction

I complete the day’s tasks
of e-mails and reports and other paperwork.
I think about which species
have gone extinct
in the amount of time it takes
to troll the Internet.
I squash a mosquito.

He drives to the grocery store
to pick up the few items he needs
for dinner: shark from a distant
sea, wine redolent of minerals from a foreign
soil. He avoids the berries
from a tropical country with lax
control of chemicals.

As she packs up her office,
she thinks about habitat loss,
those orphaned animals stranded
in a world of heat and pavement.
She wishes she had saved
more money while she had a job.
She knows she will lose the house.
She wonders what possessions
will fit into her car.

This poem first appeared at the wonderful online journal, Escape Into Life.  I encourage you to go here to see the wonderful image of a fiber collage that's paired with the poem.  And while you're there, enjoy the other poems and images too!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cozy, Not Scruffy, Hospitality

It's the time in my administrator/teacher life when tasks loom large:  the last revisions to get ready for the accreditation team, the start of a new semester of online tasks, the yearly performance reviews that will be due just after the accreditation team leaves. 

So, of course my brain wants to start thinking about new creativity projects, new books to write!

This blog serves many purposes to me, one of which is to store ideas to which I might return at a later, less busy time.  So let me record my idea that came from a "conversation" on Facebook after I posted yesterday's post with pictures from Saturday's gathering. 

One of my friends said, "I would call it COZY!"

I replied, "Cozy Hospitality does sound much better than Scruffy Hospitality--writing that down in my list of possible book titles--now for time to write those books!"

It may be one of those ideas that's only good for a shorter project.  I see far too many books with an idea that would have made a great article, but for some reason, gets stretched to something longer.

Still, I love the idea of Cozy Hospitality.  I have 10 minutes.  Let me think about the possible chapters.

--What's the minimum amount of cleaning that needs to be done?

--What to do when you can't seat everyone around the same table.

--The Progressive Dinner!  Let's bring this idea back.

--10 easy menus that you can whip up in an hour.  10 prepare ahead dishes.  10 menus that require pitching in.

--Questions to ask to keep the conversation lively but not divisive.

--What to do when everyone's dietary restrictions clash.

--Take the cozy hospitality outside.

--Creativity and Cozy Hospitality--can we all gather for a  craft project and a meal?

And now it's off to get a spin/strength class in before my day of many meetings and revisions.  It sounds sort of Prufrockian, doesn't it?  A modern way of measuring our life with coffee spoons?

But I shall dream of other projects and the kinds of experiences, like gathering with friends, that make all of this worthwhile.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Scruffy Hospitality: the Photo Shoot

I had planned to take pictures all Saturday, but I only took pictures before everyone arrived.  Yesterday's post which described both the event and my approach to scruffy hospitality got to be long, so I decided to save the pictures for a later post.

As I paged through them, I thought about the Martha Stewart publication and how my house is hardly the location for a photo shoot.  And then I thought, hey, it's time for a magazine that shows how we really live!  Here, without further ado, is Kristin Berkey-Abbott's Scruffy Hospitality:

And a close up of the table:

Moving the dining room table into the living room meant we could transform the dining room into a little sitting room nook.

We don't have a lot of flat surfaces, so I improvised serving space:

If you could see under the sarongs, you'd see work tables with lots of splashed paint and ugly plastic with nicks from saws.

I thought that people might decide to swim, so my spouse put a variety of beach towels on top of the old gas grill that we might some day turn into a charcoal or wood grill.

I told my spouse that I couldn't imagine many ways that the gathering could have gone better, at least not in our current reality.  For example, I'd love to add several feet of width to each room so that people could have circulated more easily.  But I can't make that happen.  I'd like to have giant misters so that it didn't feel quite as hot outside.  But that's cost prohibitive.

No, I will remember the baby drawing on the tablecloth quilt with a gazpacho coated spoon and smile.  I will say a prayer of thanks for the stain remover which took that gazpacho right out of the machine washable quilt.  I will feel deep gratitude for the fact that although I somehow detached the thermostat from the wall, my spouse got it reattached, and I got it re-programmed and the house eventually cooled down to where it needed to be.

And most of all, I'm thankful for friends who are good sports and such good company!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Would Martha Stewart Do? (hint: Not What Kristin Would Do)

We have a dining room table that comfortably seats 6 when expanded with the extra leaf--although, usually the extra leaf means we've got 8 coming for dinner.  And in our current dining room, we really can't expand the table.  We can't even move the table out from the wall and still have room for everyone to maneuver around it.

That hasn't stopped me from having people over, of course.  But last night looked to be a challenge.  We had 10 adults coming over, plus 3 children and a baby.  Hmm.

I thought about the movie I saw a few weeks ago, the movie that made my friend say, "This movie makes me want to move to the South of France."  I replied, "This movie makes me want to move my dining room table outside." 

I thought about doing that, but we've had brutal heat this week.  And it's been a bad summer in terms of mosquitoes.

So, we moved some living room furniture out of the way, and we moved the dining room table into the living room.  I still had to put out a call for extra chairs, but my guests had some.  I do miss the days of having a house big enough to store folding chairs for just such an occasion.  But we made do.

I don't have a tablecloth big enough to stretch across the dining room table that I rarely expand.  I no longer have a length of cloth that I could use.  But I do have a quilt that was given to me by the women's group at my mom's church when I went to be a retreat leader.  It's a simple quilt, made of squares, machine stitched together, knotted instead of quilted. 

I stretched it across the table.  It had barely enough width, but not quite enough length.  I decided it would do.

As I set the table, I thought, "What would Martha Stewart do?"  Certainly not what I would do.  She would never buy a house that couldn't comfortably accommodate her dining room table.  She probably has a whole house full of tablecloths that fit that table.

But it was a fun evening nonetheless.  I'm glad I didn't let my lack of Martha Stewartness keep me from having people over.

It put me in mind of this blog post on scruffy hospitality, which encourages us not only to come as we are, but to host as we are.  The writer, an Anglican priest, shares his sermon, which has this nugget of wisdom:  "Scruffy hospitality means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together."

I've been making more of an effort to have people over, even if I won't have a chance to deep clean or dust.  My toilet and sink will be clean, but we may eat off paper plates, like we did last night, because we still don't have a working dishwasher.

I know people who never have people over for dinner, and part of me understands.  It might be easier to go out to dinner together.  But that will prevent a lot of us from socializing.

I much prefer to say, "Come on over.  We'll be serving ________.  Feel free to bring a dish, or just bring yourselves."  I don't know about you, but it seems that any gathering of friends these days includes a vegetarian/vegan, a diabetic, and someone who's avoiding gluten.  My theory is that if everyone makes sure to bring something that they can eat, then we'll all be fed.  And if someone comes who hasn't had time to shop, we can feed them too.

Scruffy hospitality!  It probably wouldn't make for a compelling TV show, but it's more of a livable lifestyle than the one that Martha Stewart promotes.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Beautiful Bad Dreams

Happily, I don't have many bad dreams anymore.  Strange dreams, yes.  But true nightmares?  No.

The past 3 nights, just before I woke up, I've had bad dreams.  But unlike my bad dreams of past years, they've been very beautiful.

On Thursday morning, I dreamed I was outside of a mountain cabin with my spouse and someone on the front porch.  It was autumnal with sun streaming through the trees.  I was at the side of the house and got trapped in a strange swirl of ice crystals, teeny tiny, sun-sparkly ice crystals.  I couldn't move, and I couldn't call out.  I knew I would freeze to death in a beautiful storm.

On Friday morning, I dreamed about a small house in a swamp.  I was following a female friend (she doesn't exist in my waking life).  For some reason, I needed to follow her into the house, but I realized we were surrounded by snakes in the trees, silver green snakes.  I knew they were very dangerous.  I couldn't go forward, couldn't turn around, was scared to stay in place.

And this morning, I dreamed that I needed to get to the airport, and I was relying on my mom and dad to get there.  But we were in a lovely seaside setting, and we couldn't seem to get focused on getting to the airport.

I can certainly play psychologist and figure out what these dreams mean, what my not-so-subconscious frets about, but that's less interesting to me than the cinematic nature of these bad dreams.  I don't usually dream in such beautiful colors and certainly not in my bad dreams, which tend to be dark and badly lit.  My bad dreams don't usually shimmer so much.  For that matter, neither do my good dreams.

And 3 nights in a row?  I don't usually have bad dreams so regularly.  I don't usually have dreams that looked like they were filmed by the same cinematographer.  What's happening in my brain?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was a function of aging?  If, in addition to aching joints, we had more beautiful dreams as we got older?

I'd prefer to have beautiful good dreams than beautiful bad dreams.  I'd like for this morning's dream to be the last for awhile.  I'd even go back to my boring dreams of office work if it meant my beautiful bad dreams came to an end.

I know some artists who would get poetry mileage out of these dreams, but I probably won't.  I'd love to be able to replicate the colors and shimmer of these dreams in paintings or film, but my skill set isn't up to that.

Now it is time to turn my attention to daytime tasks.  I have 2 online classes to prepare.  Luckily, I don't have curriculum to develop.  But I do have to go through the course shell to enter dates, a task which takes more time than you might think.

But the day will not be totally tedious.  I'll go to spin class and swim in the pool, when I need breaks from class prep.  We are grilling a brisket (and all afternoon task) and some rose snappers, a fish I've never heard of, but it looked like a beautiful variety of snapper.  Friends who live in the neighborhood, the ones who inspired us to get serious about moving to a better neighborhood, will join us.  It will be a lovely, late summer Saturday, beautifully lighted with colors of all shades, with no nightmares hovering near.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Questions to Answer about Your Manuscript

Two years ago today, I'd be getting the news of the restructuring of my school and my job.  I was told of the lay-offs of members of my department, including my own lay off.  Unlike my department members, there was a full-time job in the new structure for which I could apply.  Even though I did apply, and I did get the job, it was still unsettling.  It continues to be unsettling.

I've already written extensively about this day, most lengthily in this post, so let me not rehash it all here.

This week at work we got one of those e-mails from one of the people at the top of our company, the kind of e-mail that raises more questions than it answers.  The fact that the e-mail comes two years almost to the day after the last company restructuring does not help allay fears of the workers.

Today I will try not to focus on any of these issues.  I just found out that one of my favorite small publishers, Phoenicia Publishing, has an open submission period that closes at the end of this month.  The press is looking for proposals for nonfiction and fiction manuscripts.  I'm most familiar with the work that the press does with poetry.  But when I saw the call for manuscripts, I thought of not only my memoir/collection of essays, but also my collection of linked short stories.

So today, instead of letting my brain think about the possible meanings of the nebulous e-mail from the executive, I'll work on answering these questions for my submission:

"Your query should include a concise description of your book, a few sentences describing how it fits within Phoenicia's publishing focus, a short bio, and a description of the existing and potential market for your book."

I will let my brain think about whether to submit a query about my collection of linked short stories or my memoir project.  Hmmm.

I'll think of the questions that Sandra Beasley is answering for her upcoming book.  She gives us all a glimpse of this process in this post.  She says, "I know so many folks who--after jumping the hoops to editorial acceptance--are ambushed by the additional hoops it takes to sell the book. The Author's Questionnaire is meant to help itemize your contacts, expand your market awareness, and rehearse answers to likely questions."

She posts the entire set of questions, and it's eye-opening.  For those of us who look them over and have a default response of having failed miserably at making contacts, she reminds us, "I suspect many writers see the heavy emphasis on contacts in the media and freeze up. But you know more people than you realize. Consider all 360 degrees of your life: your identities as a teacher, a community member, a volunteer, a parent, an alumna. Don't fixate on promoting your writing exclusively to other writers. If anything, those other audiences will be more excited at the novelty of you writing a book."

Those are the words I'll return to for inspiration.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Frazzle Dazzle Day

Yesterday was a day of ups and downs, a real frazzle dazzle of a day.

It began oddly.  I went to my gym which is part of a hospital.  As I walked down the hallway, the alarm lights went off and a voice over the P.A. said, "Code red in the mechanical building."  Over and over the voice said that, and the lights flashed.

Code red--fire, right?

But no one seemed alarmed, so I went on up to the 8th floor.  There was limited electricity, meaning no fans and no music for the spin class room.  But we decided to go ahead anyway.

Halfway through, we were plunged into darkness.  Still, we continued to spin.  By the time we were done, still no power.  So, I made my way down the steps and went back home to shower.

Oddly, the whole experience restored my good humor.  I had woken up in quite a funk, thinking about how I had accomplished nothing in my life, I would never be published again, I would never achieve my full potential.  How I hate that kind of funk!  Luckily, I've read enough biographies of creative people to know that these funks are normal.  Luckily, I've been through them enough times to recognize the lie in the hissing voice that rears up in my head occasionally--and I know that if I sit tight, and continue to do the creative work, I'll be O.K.

By late morning, I was rewarded.  Kathleen Kirk sent me an e-mail to let me know that my poems were up at Escape Into Life.  You can see them here.

I have long admired Kathleen's work, both her own creative work and the editing that she does.  I've loved the way she paired poems and art.  I've often wondered what she'd do with my work.  What a treat to find out.

Through the years, I thought about sending her some poems.  But I worried that there might be some reason why she had never suggested that I submit my work.  I didn't want to put her in a difficult position by reaching out.

So, when she asked me to submit poems, I was thrilled.  And yesterday, when I went to the site, I was thrilled again.

I love that the Internet makes this kind of pairing--poems and art--possible.  In the days of print journals, it would be prohibitively expensive to create this kind of feature.

And then it was off to the mock accreditation meeting.  It was a long meeting, full of good information, but it left me feeling frazzled.  I spent the rest of the afternoon copying every field trip permission slip from the past year, e-mailing the copies to myself so I had a PDF file to keep electronically, hole punching and putting the paper copies into a binder.  Today I'll do the same for every syllabus for every course that I oversee that's in the catalogue.

It's work that's necessary, but not exactly inspiring.

I ended the day by going to an artist's studio.  The artist is doing amazing things with bird cages.  Picture a bird cage with paper dolls from the 1950's hanging inside.  Picture a birdcage with rusty objects hanging from perches--or with sparkly bits dangling. 

The artist had invited a select group, and I felt immensely honored to be part of it.  We ate and discussed school stuff and art stuff and happily we stayed away from politics and the world situation.  I drove home with my frazzle mood dispersed and my dazzle mood restored.

Notice a theme?  Throughout the day, it was the endorphins produced by exercise and art that got rid of the frazzles and restored me to dazzle.  Hurrah for endorphins!  Hurrah for exercise!  Hurrah for art!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Environments, Large and Small

--When people ask me why I don't have pets, I say, "I can't even keep houseplants alive."

--But that's not exactly true.  On Memorial Day, I bought plants that found their way into 4 pots that have spent the summer on my front porch:

--Some of the flower plants in the 2 big pots have died, but overall, those 2 pots have thrived.  I lost a batch of mint, part of the basil, and a batch of dill, but the other herbs (mint, basil, and rosemary) are hanging on.

--However, I must confess that the big pots are not nearly as bushy as they were the first week-end that I brought them home from the Home Depot.

--When I was scrolling through my Feb. entries, looking for posts about my latest revision of my book-length poetry manuscript, I came across this post and the line "be the asteroid":  "I heard a scientist say that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs; this time, we're the asteroid.  What does it mean to be the asteroid?" 

--The planet doesn't need us.  The human species may die off, but other species will survive.  Still, I continue to water the plants on the porch, plants who rely on me for water.

--I've also been thinking about the environment on a bodily scale.  Earlier this year, I had two colleagues and my best friend from high school diagnosed with cancer, 3 different kinds.  I thought about God, who loves all of creation, even the cancer cell.

--I've felt moments of shaken faith many times in my life, but that realization, that God loves all parts of creation equally, from me to the cancer cells that may kill those whom I love, that realization shook me for a few minutes.

--I've been intrigued by disease for many decades.  I'm lucky enough to be able to be fascinated by Ebola from a distance.  For a look at what it means close up, don't miss this postcard in The New Yorker.  It's a description that hearkens back to medieval days and the black death:  "The hospitals of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, are full of Ebola patients and are turning away new patients, including women in childbirth. American Ebola experts in Monrovia are hearing reports that infected bodies are being left in the streets: the outbreak is beginning to assume a medieval character. People sick with Ebola are leaving Monrovia and going into the countryside to search for village faith healers, or to stay with relatives."

--Civilizations have collapsed before.  This blog post talks about why one Bronze Age, interconnected civilization disappeared, and it makes disconcerting comparisons between that civilization and our own. 

--We can try to comfort ourselves by saying that the seas won't swallow our front porches until we're dead and gone, that our U.S. health care system could handle Ebola when it comes to our shores.  But it doesn't take much to tip the balance away from civilization and back towards a life less attractive.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Clerking for Death

It's interesting to me what issues consume people's time, especially if the issues aren't affecting them directly.  For example, I haven't been following the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri with the same interest as many people--I'm judging interest by news coverage and Facebook updates and blog posts.  I have not been taking sides and choosing between Israel and Gaza.  I have been keeping an anxious eye on Russia and the Ukraine, but not enough to write much.

No, I have been consumed with the Ebola outbreak.  Yesterday I saw an article or two, a mention here or there, about a clinic in Liberia that was mobbed by protestors.  That led to the patients and workers running away, and then the looters took things from the clinic, like infected mattresses.  Yikes.
I thought of all the disaster movies I've seen, the ones that deal with disease.  The scene sounded like something right out of a movie--the way the disease would get out to the wider population.  How strange when the daily news sounds like something straight out of a movie!

I find myself thinking about all the health care workers who do not run away. I cannot imagine working in those conditions, the sub-par facilities, the lack of basics like gloves and disinfectant, the incredible heat, the lack of running water, the lack of electricity--so much aching need.

In the wake of the various clashes in Ferguson, some of us have talked a lot about the privileges our skin color achieves for us.  I don't often see people making the link to Africa and the current Ebola crisis, not in the same breath.  It's as if people are talking about racism in the heartland of America or racism in how we treat disease in the various countries of Africa, but rarely linking them.  

I, too, am not going to make those links.  However, I do find myself looking west to Ferguson and then looking fearfully to the Ebola outbreaks to my east.  I find myself wondering if the time will come when we'll look back to Ferguson and marvel at the population who had the luxury to clash while the efforts to contain Ebola were so paltry and so ineffective.

There are questions of wealth and national sovereignty at stake.  I understand, sort of, why first world nations can't just sweep in and take over.  Even the delivery of basic medical supplies (aspirin, clean water, gloves) is compromised by the history of first world interactions with the continent of Africa. Ah, the legacy of colonialism:  so much already written!

If I had time and inclination, perhaps I'd write an essay connecting Ferguson and Ebola from this direction:  how does our history hamper our good efforts and intentions?

As always, I sit with my white privilege, my access to good health care, the clean water and flowing electricity that I so often take for granted--and I feel that sickening guilt.  I think of what consumes my days, the accreditation reports, the assessment documents, the annual performance reviews.  I wonder if I should be doing more with my life.

Could I write a poem that somehow encapsulates all these issues?  I've doodled with something I might call "Love in the Time of Ebola."  But then I came across this post on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa blog, and my brain shifted direction.

He created an erasure poem with the title "Clerking for Death."  I went with a different approach:

Clerking for Death

You would think that Death,
having taken so much from so many,
would have secured better office
space.  But I still report
to Death's chambers to learn
all that I can.

During coffee breaks, we lowly
clerks trade ideas for more effective ways
to conduct business:
the glittery, brittle attractiveness of new weapons,
the terror that oozes out of every new disease,
a multitude of accidents unconceived until now.

I have already been to school
for many years, and again, the breadth
of all I do not know surprises
me.  I take careful notes.
When I have a practice
of my own, I will be prepared.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Summer Flickers

Today is the first day of school for our public school students.  I was just feeling like I'm getting settled into summer, and now it's over.

Of course, it isn't really over, at least not in terms of weather.  As if to remind us, yesterday was one of those ferociously hot days, with a heat index of 110 and no breeze.  As I walked across the church parking lot, I could swear I felt the asphalt oozing.  We hid in the house all afternoon--it was just too intense to go outside.

Happily, we so rarely experience that here.  It's usually 92 or so, with lower humidity than the rest of the South, and a good breeze from the east.  Record breaking heat is in the 96 degree range.

Until we moved here, I lived in places that routinely had a stretch of days where the temperature was 105 or higher.  And that's the actual temperature, not the heat index.  So summers here feel surprisingly temperate.

Yes, I do miss autumn.  But even if I lived in other places, mid-August is still hot.  Children would troop off to school in heat that didn't match the action.

Let me make a list of the summer things that I should be sure to do before the season slips away entirely:

--eat more watermelon.

--eat other kinds of melons.

--take some evening walks around the neighborhood so that I can notice the light changing as we move towards the autumnal equinox.

--I haven't had any corn on the cob!  How can this be?

--Should I make homemade ice cream?

--Perhaps an outdoor concert?

I wish we had fireflies here.  I wouldn't catch them and put them in a jar, the way I would have as a child.  But it would be neat to watch them flicker.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Universe Provides Perspective

Yesterday's post may have moped too long in the land of "What if it's too late?"  Throughout the time since I wrote it, I've come across items that give me hope.  It's almost as if the universe is trying to tell me something!

Last night, I flipped through a book to find this quote from Thomas Merton:  "There can be an intense egoism in following everybody else.  People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular--and too lazy to think of anything better.  Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.  They want quick success and they are in such a haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves.  And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity."  (from New Seeds of Contemplation

I find it somewhat ironic that I found this quote in Todd Henry's The Accidental Creative:  How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice.  It's the kind of book  that gives us tips and techniques for organizing our time and ideas, the kind of book where I find I'm already doing a lot of these techniques--and I do have the idea that Merton might say we're not really listening to his quote.

There's a fascinating post at the Monkey See blog that reflects on book writing, book promoting, and the role of social media.  Martha Woodruff has posted a whole series, in fact.  I love all of her posts on the process of writing the first book.  And what I love more is what I learned from listening to this story:  Martha Woodruff is 64!  Maybe it's not too late for me.

And if you find this kind of writing about writing inspiring, don't miss this site:  Every Monday there's a new post, and they're fairly short, but full of wisdom.

And then, yesterday, there was this piece on NPR about a fascinating art project that plants a ceramic poppy for every British and colonial life lost during World War I: 888,246 ceramic poppies.

Let me pause a minute for that # to sink in--and that's only British and colonial lives--not French, not German, not U.S.  And it doesn't count the injured.

So, let me take a minute of gratitude here:  even if my poems are never collected in a book, I still have the freedom to write, the time, the support of those who love me.  Those blessings are not small.  I am not in a war zone.  I have fresh water just by turning the tap.  I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge.

Publication that comes later or not at all suddenly seems like an insignificant thing to fret about.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bartleby, Ahab, or the Great White Whale?

In many ways, this has been a tough week for my writing.  From the outside, you probably wouldn't be able to tell.  After all, I've continued to write.  I've even written more poems than I usually do in a week.  But I've felt like the forces of my life have conspired to keep me from writing, that I've had to fight for every scrap of writing time.

I often realize that work intrudes when my dreams are set in the workplace, when I'm doing mundane tasks even in my dreams.  Yes, I've had that kind of week.

When I don't have as much creative time as I'd like, I often find that my e-mails at work become more creative.  Here's what I wrote to my full-time faculty on Thursday:

"If you don’t want to be part, it’s perfectly fine.  Please send me an e-mail that says, “I would prefer not to.”  I will smile at your reference to Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” whilst trying to avoid an existential crisis wondering if I really am a character in a Melvillian work—hopefully not Ahab!  Hopefully not Ishmael!  Will I alone survive to tell the tale?

Don’t read anything into that last question!  It’s a reference to the end of Moby Dick.  I think.  It’s been awhile since I read that tome."

And it's been a tough week because I got a rejection.  Copper Canyon Press said no to my book length collection of poems.

It was a lovely rejection e-mail, one that let me know that they really had read the book: 

"Thank you for submitting "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site" to Copper Canyon Press. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to consider it. The work strikes a compelling balance between apocalyptic fallouts and dishwasher clatter -- we enjoyed your exploration of what's at stake in the drama of the every day.

As you know, we publish a limited number of titles each year, and unfortunately we have not selected "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site" for publication; it's not the best fit for our list. However, we wish you the best of luck as you move forward with this and other creative projects. Thanks again."
I knew it was a long shot when I sent them the manuscript.  Sadly, every submission is a long shot.  There are so many great manuscripts out there and so little opportunities.

I'm also sad because I'm beginning to feel that should this manuscript ever find a home, it might be the only collection of poems I publish--at least at this rate.  I've been working on this manuscript for 10 years now.  It's a very different manuscript from 10 years ago.  For more on that idea, see this post from February.

But to end on a happier note:  when I was scrolling through my Feb. entries, looking for posts about that latest revision, I came across this post and the line "be the asteroid":  "I heard a scientist say that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs; this time, we're the asteroid.  What does it mean to be the asteroid?" 

I have just written a poem that delights me, a poem that repeats this line, a line I might never have remembered if not for that blog post.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Compiling, Shredding, Copying, More Shredding

Every so often I send a batch of e-mails, and occasionally someone writes back to say, "Were you really awake at 4 in the morning?"

So, yes, to those of you who see 4 a.m. as the middle of the night, I was awake and writing this early.  Actually, I've been awake even longer, although thankfully, it's unusual that I wake up at 1 a.m. and can't fall back asleep.

A few hours ago, I had been dreaming that I was working on the assessment spreadsheet.  I woke up and started thinking about all that must be done by Tuesday morning when the mock accrediting team shows up for the mock visit:  assessment spreadsheet finished, faculty files updated, syllabi put in the binder, departmental meeting minutes for the past 2 years sent to the dean . . . on and on the list goes.  It's all very doable, but it will take some time.  I should be able to get it all done in the amount of time left, but it's the kind of task list that wakes me up at night.

Yes, I woke up, even though I can't really do the work remotely.  So I got up and tried to get some of my own work, the creative work, done before I turn my attention to the work that I do for pay.

Will I be tired today?  Perhaps, but likely not more so than any other day.  With luck, I will hum through and get the work done:  the endless copying, the proofreading, the shredding, the additional copying, the occasional break to help a student or to evaluate a transcript--those breaks that remind me of why the endless copying and creating of files and spreadsheets is important.

These days at work remind me of earlier times, when I first wrote the first poems that would become part of my second chapbook.  I've written about "I Stand Here Shredding Documents," that poem with its variations, in this post.

And this morning, I've thought of the pictures that I took/staged back in 2010 as I searched for cover art.  I've spent time looking through that file and feeling happy about taking those pictures. 

This week, so far, I've felt like this:

I worry that by the end of the accreditation visit, I'll feel like this:

I like the mix of work chores and home chores that the above photo references.  Happily, so far, I have a real office at work; I am not reduced to doing my work-for-pay on an ironing board.

And those who know me know that I also don't do any of my home chores on an ironing board!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stolen Time: A Wednesday Off, the End of Summer

I am sure that many people might pity me for the way we spent our anniversary.  I didn't take days off to make an extended week-end so that we could vacations somewhere special.  No, I just took Wednesday off.   I had no meetings scheduled, so why not?

At first I worried it might be the frustrating kind of day off, the kind of day where we tried to accomplish things, but only find ourselves thwarted.  My spouse, who has 2 graduate degrees, is taking music classes at the local community college.  But he hasn't been able to register, because the school still showed that it needed high school transcripts.  I had called in mid-July, and they told me as long as they had his undergrad transcripts, they would waive the need for high school.  I said, "Even though you have his graduate school transcripts you need undergrad transcripts?"  Yes.

I work at a college, so I understand how arcane these rules can be.  We had his undergrad transcripts sent.  Yesterday, I called again.  The computer showed his undergrad transcripts had been received but were still being processed.  But he still had a hold, and couldn't register, because of the need for high school transcripts.

I talked to several people and patiently explained the situation.  Finally, I reached the one who could help--click, click, the hold was removed.  And she didn't even need to speak to my spouse, the student.

I know, you're asking why he wasn't the one making the call.  Well, I have more patience with phone calls, so I did it, while he worked on cleaning the pool.  I don't have the patience to clean the pool.  It seemed like a fair distribution of labor.

He still couldn't register.  The classes he wants require departmental approval, and he had to go to campus to get that approval.  It couldn't be granted over the phone.  So, off we went.  The campus is between semesters, so was fairly deserted--thus, an easy errand.

Then we made a Wal-Mart run.  I know, I know--I am deeply cognizant of all the reasons why we shouldn't shop at Wal-Mart.  But I suspect that most of the big box stores are ethically problematic.  And more important, they sell the only eye lid wipes that help my left eye, which crusts over at night.  We picked up some filet mignon rounds and came home to grill--yummmmm. 

We had several times in the pool, and for the most part, our day was relaxed.  It felt like a lovely time away from time.

In the late afternoon, we bought a chainsaw at Home Depot.  When we came home, my spouse worked on cutting down the pesky ficus trees that must be taken down, while I worked on a writing project--bliss!

I know our way of celebrating our anniversary doesn't sound like something as fun as a trip, a romantic get away to celebrate our marriage, but having a Wednesday off was really neat.  It felt like stolen time, and the day didn't zoom by, the way that week-end days do.

Plus, we spent the whole day with just the company of each other (if you don't count all the strangers in Wal-Mart)--no work colleagues, no friends, no fellow gym rats.  In that way, it was the perfect way to spend an anniversary.
And soon it will be Friday and the week-end!
Our public school kids start on Monday.  Hard to believe that summer is over--not in terms of weather, certainly, but in terms of not driving through school zones, not seeing groups of kids waiting for the bus, and all the ways that life changes when school is in session, even for those of us who don't have kids in school.
I bought a watermelon at Wal-Mart--one last attempt to hang onto summer!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Relationship as Vale of Soul-Making

If it was this day in 1988, I'd be getting ready to be married. 

Our wedding was at 11 a.m.; we had guests who would have a long drive after the ceremony (back to Memphis, back to Virginia), so we wanted them to get an early start.

This pillow was made by one of my mom's friends.  It's astonishing that we've kept it in good shape.  It's a great metaphor, if I don't think about all the wedding presents that have been destroyed through the years.  Why did I put the gorgeous crystal pitcher in the dishwasher?  What was I thinking?  I don't want to see the metaphor there.

Happily, our marriage has more in common with fabric art than works of art in a more fragile medium.  The fabric does not shred apart completely; the trials we've faced have knotted us together.

Here you see a picture of us on this day in 1988, and the two of us at our 25th anniversary dinner last year.  What holds a couple together for 26 years?

Once I'd have said that common interests were important.  Once I'd have said a couple needs to have similar beliefs, whether they be religious in nature or a shared commitment to a social movement.  Once I'd have said that couples should have a similar outlook when it came to finances.

All these things might be true, but I'd go to something more essential if I was giving premarital counseling today.  I'd talk about the need for compassion and forgiveness.  If you're thinking about marrying someone who holds a grudge, I'd advise you to think long and hard before going through with that.

I have felt lucky because my spouse forgives me, even if I make the same mistake again, as humans do.  His compassionate nature helps him see that I'm trying and helps him see the factors that contributed to the mistake.  His compassionate nature helps him remember the greater good that he's seen in me and the potential that I have.

I try my very hardest to do the same for him. 

Sure, there are times when I wish I could change things.  I'd like to wave a magic wand and change our behavior or our circumstances.  But we have learned so much more because we don't have that magic wand.

I would argue that we can learn the same lessons in different schools:  through our relationships with our families, through our work with colleagues, through our friendships.  The great British poet John Keats called this world "a vale of Soul-making."  I would argue that it's our relationships, especially the ones that last for many years and decades, that most form our souls.  Even the relationships that don't end well have much to teach us.

I look back on that day and shake my head.  I was convinced I was so grown up; I had just turned 23.  But really, what do any of us know when we enter into such a union?  We think we know all that we need to know, but we will learn so much more. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Knight on a Special Quest: Farewell, Robin Williams

I am staggered today at the news of the death of Robin Williams.  So let me record some thoughts.  If you want a more focused essay, I wrote this blog post after rewatching Good Morning, Vietnam, and it holds up well.

--I remember the character of Mork on Happy Days.  I didn't particularly like that story line, but I gave Mork and Mindy a chance when it premiered; it was a much better show.

--That being said, I can't remember much about it, just that I watched it regularly and thought it was hilarious.  I loved the character of Mindy too.  I liked the relationship between Mindy and Mork, the hospitality that she showed the alien.

--I loved the stand up material--what amazing energy.  What connections his brain made, zip, zip, zip.  His comedy left me breathless both with wonder and laughter.

--My favorite Robin Williams period coincided with grad school.  What amazing movies in the period between 1987 and 1992.

--I first saw Good Morning, Vietnam back in 1988.  I had taken a vow after seeing Platoon that I was done with Vietnam War movies.  But since Good Morning, Vietnam starred Robin Williams, I made an exception.  Then and now, I think that the movie does a good job of showing the complexity of that war, especially as it was lived by servicemen (and there were no servicewomen in this movie) on the ground away from the main fighting.

--I saw Dead Poets Society on the big screen:  breathtaking views of autumnal foliage.  It made me homesick for autumns I've scarcely known.

--Through the years I've had students tell me that I'm their Mr. Keating.  I take it as a profound compliment.  As I watch the film in later years, I'm seeing it from a different place.  When I first saw it, I was in my first year of teaching and still so very idealistic.  Now that I'm older, I feel a bit horrified at how the teaching goes terribly wrong.  I don't blame Mr. Keating, the teacher; in fact, he's horrified too.  But it's an important reminder of how impressionable we are at certain ages, and those of us who are entrusted with these lives as teachers, we must tread carefully.

--I do love that this film shows the joys of poetry.  I wish we had more films like this.

--The Fisher King is my favorite Robin Williams film, and it's about a knight on a special quest in gritty New York City.  But that summary is such a pale shadow of the movie.  We saw it in the fall of 1991.  I took a break from studying for Ph.D. written Comprehensive exams, and off we went, my spouse and I.  I was breathless from what the film attempted and what it accomplished.  After we watched it, we bought a Harry Connick Jr. CD because the soundtrack reminded us of his music, and we found the CD on sale at the Dutch Square Mall in Columbia, South Carolina.  We also bought some art supplies at Michaels out on Harbison Blvd., before that area became so populated by stores.

--I love that The Fisher King shows the importance of love and human connections.  It's the kind of film that makes us believe that the comatose patient will be returned to us, healthy and whole.  It's the kind of film that makes us believe that love can save us all.

--We see that theme in The Birdcage too.  Let us not forget that that film showed us a gay family where the members truly loved each other.  Let us not forget that in the middle of the 1990's, when the film came out, we didn't have many depictions of loving, gay families.

--I could make the case that the career of Robin Williams comes back to this theme again and again:  love will save us, at least for a little while.  I think of his work in the Comic Relief efforts in the 80's.  I think of those themes of my favorite movies.  Even in the movies that I didn't love (but didn't hate), like Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting, come back to that theme. 

--I know that some will see the depression that took his life as a refutation of the idea that love can save us.  But I want to believe that love kept him alive for many decades than he would have had otherwise.

--I wish we could have had more, but I'll take time to be grateful for what we had.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Creative Projects and the Importance of Purpose

Did you hear the NPR story about the benefits of feeling that your life has purpose?  A recent study has proved it.

I can almost hear your eyeballs rolling (yes, I mixed that sensory reference on purpose), those of you who hate NPR.  I can hear people sighing and saying, "Leave it to modern science to 'discover' something we all already knew."

But here's what struck me:  "In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn't seem to matter when people found their direction. It could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s."

And yes, the study controlled for other factors like age and gender.

The reason why is not clear, and I'm sure we can all think of many possibilities.  Do people who have a sense of purpose actually have less stress or does stress affect them differently?  If we have a sense of purpose, do we make smarter decisions about food and exercise so that we'll have more time to fulfill that purpose?

And you might ask for a definition of purpose.  Here's what the story said, "Of course, purpose means different things to different people. Hill [one of the scientists who conducted the study] says it could be as simple as making sure one's family is happy. It could be bigger, like contributing to social change. It could be more self-focused, like doing well on the job. Or it could be about creativity."

I immediately thought about my writing projects and the larger sense of purpose my writing has given me throughout my life.  I have always seen my writing, and indeed the writing of most people, as an important effort to chronicle what life is like for us.  I've also seen my writing as an important effort to chronicle what life is like for a woman.  I think good writing preserves what's in the process of being lost.  And the sociologist in me believes in the importance of making a chronicle of societal changes as they're happening.

Even though on most days, I'm the only one proclaiming the importance of my writing, it still gives me purpose.  My English major days taught me that the writers that the world considers important may not be the only ones.  The great poet and artist William Blake, for example, was not widely known in his own time, when he was doing his most important work.  Many a journal kept by a woman writer has become vital to historians only decades after the death of the diarist.

So, even on days when we feel like our work is meaningless, it's important to push through that.  That sense of purpose that our creative lives gives us may be more important than we know.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Journeys: Hundred Steps and Others

Yesterday was one of those rare, almost perfect days.  It began with a  morning of writing and getting all my grading done for my online class.  Then I went to a wonderful spin class.

My spouse has been in North Carolina for a meeting, so we thought we might do a quilting group session, but the date turned out not to be good for many of us.  Instead, one of us suggested that we go see The Hundred-Foot Journey.  I hadn't heard of the movie, but my friend assured me that it would appeal to our joint love of food, cooking, French scenery, Indian movie stars, and Helen Mirren.  Well, to be honest, I don't follow Indian movies the way that some of my friends do, but I'm always up for a movie about cooking and beautiful scenery--finding a window of free time is the difficulty.

One of our group suggested that we go to an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet for lunch before the movie, and we did.  It seemed appropriate, given that the plot of the movie revolves around a group of Indian immigrants who opens a Indian restaurant across the street from a traditional French restaurant that has 1 Michelin star.  I'd have preferred an all-you-can-eat French food buffet, but if such a thing exists, it's a well-kept secret.

The movie was a delight.  It's a glossy, beautiful movie, with characters who overcome their flaws, flaws which aren't dreadful in the first place.  It made me miss my maternal grandparents, who grew amazing gardens.  Sigh.

The last shot of the movie made one friend say, "We have to move to the South of France."  It made me say, "What would happen if I moved my dining room table outside?"

In the movies, the table magically appears.  The heirloom tablecloth stays in place.  There are no mosquitoes.  I know it wouldn't be that way in real life.

In the late afternoon, I headed over to the parsonage.  My pastor hosted a gathering of people who take an active part in planning the more participatory worship service.  We all brought food and wine and gathered around the huge dining room table.  It wasn't outside in a beautiful French courtyard, but it had its own charms.

I felt so lucky yesterday to be part of several different friendship networks.  I felt lucky to have the jobs that allow me to live here.  And late in the evening, I headed over to the airport to pick up my spouse.

Often, I travel with him to these meetings which are held at church camps.  This year, I decided I needed to stay where I could be sure of Internet connectivity, since grades for my online class are due on Monday.  I'm glad that I did.  I needed connectivity several times yesterday.  And again, I felt lucky as my first year of online teaching comes to an end, and I begin the 2nd year.  What a wonderful opportunity!  And I'm blessed in having some students who have told me that I've been effective as an online teacher. 

I picked up my spouse, and we came home to share a glass of wine, as we marveled at the mostly full moon.  It's not the French countryside, but it's beautiful nonetheless.

And if I had to choose between no friends and a life in France or a life full of friends here in South Florida, I'd choose my friends.  It's been a long journey mentally for me to get to this place of appreciation, much more than a hundred steps.  I'm glad to be here.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Long National Nightmares

Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon resigned.  As Gerald Ford took over, he said, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men."

I call Watergate my first political memory.  I would have just turned 9 years old during these national events.  I don't remember any of the televised hearings, but I do remember this week.  We were vacationing in Myrtle Beach, my family along with some other non-relative families.   We stayed in an old beach house, back in the days when old beach houses had no televisions, no radios, back in the days before incessant connectivity.

I remember the adults starting their cars periodically to get the news updates.  They must have come back to report to the group.  That must be how I found out that the president would resign.  As a child, I took this to be catastrophic news.

My memory of this day is that I said to one of the adults, "Have you heard the bad news?  The president will leave today."

I remember the adult saying to me, "Maybe it won't be bad news.  Maybe it will turn out to be good news."

As a grown-up, I do see Nixon's departure as the end of a long national nightmare.  Or was it the beginning of a brief hiatus?  I have a fondness for Gerald Ford born out of many things:  we share a birthday, and he wrote me a letter once.  I wrote to him when I was in the fifth grade.  I told him that if I was old enough, I would vote for him.  He wrote back to thank me for my support.

Yes, I know that it wasn't him writing.  But I didn't know that as a child.  I was impressed.

As a grown up, I'm still impressed with Ford.  Although I remember no legislative landmarks from his brief tenure, I remember him as a decent human who resolved to heal a country.  And I would argue that he was part of that process.

Today is also the anniversary of the nuclear bomb destroying the town of Nagasaki.  How have I been alive this long and never realized that these anniversaries fell on the same day?  My poet brain wants to play with this juxtaposition.  Alas, my poet brain needs to grade papers for my online class.

If your poet brain has time, here are some more juxtapositions.  On this day, in 1854, Walden was published.  It's also the birthday of P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins.  Both books seem to have a sheen of idealism that shimmer around them.  They might both have much to say about political issues past and present.  Do we want a president who is more like Mary Poppins?  Do we want a president with the idealism of Thoreau?  Do these tendencies lead us to the nuclear landscape we inhabit now?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Heroines, Plain and Awkward

On Facebook Tuesday, news zipped around that the director of Frozen would be making a movie version of A Wrinkle in Time.

I wrote:  "Oh the important casting questions. I hope they don't make the Meg character all glammed up. She needs to be studious and Calvin needs to be athletic, and they can find each other regardless."

Bookgirl then responded:  "I also immediately went to the casting of Meg. It's kind of like Jane Eyre. They never make Jane plain enough. They never make Meg awkward enough. (Might make an interesting blog post; would truly plain or awkward heroines make audiences too uncomfortable in a way that book readers aren't?)"

It's an interesting question.  Can we love the star of a movie who doesn't look beautiful?  Can we believe that a plain/awkward/ugly female character could still get the guy?  Until recently, male leads in movies could be attractive in a variety of ways.  Women have always had a narrow range of beauty.

In real life, plenty of people find love, regardless of how they look.  Why don't we see this more often in the movies?

At least if we don't have that plot in the movies, we have it in numerous books.

I've written numerous times about the importance of A Wrinkle in Time to me as a child.  In her post that elaborates on our Facebook exchange, Bookgirl sums up my feelings in two sentences:  "Meg is an awkward, difficult teenager whom people love anyway, and I think that’s part of the reason so many of us identify so deeply with her. She was not someone we aspired to be; she was who we actually were."

The book also holds up well for adult readers.  Several years ago, I wrote this post about reading the book again as an adult. 

When I reread the post this morning, this part leapt out at me:  "Meg is perfect, just the way she is.  In fact, all of these characters turn out to be perfect, despite their imperfections.  It's such a great message for a world that tries to get us to conform, to change, to squeeze ourselves into costumes that do not fit.  Meg doesn't have to slim down, to use the right make-up, to get a better hairstyle, to get the guy.  Meg doesn't have to settle down so that she can do well in school and get into a good college.  Her parents continue in their scientific pursuits, even though they aren't successful in traditional ways.  Charles Wallace is allowed to grow up at his own pace.  Calvin finds a family that fits him better, but he doesn't have to reject his birth family."

I was also struck that in this book, Meg's flaws turn out to be the very strengths that she needs to win the day.

If the movie gets this part right, it could be a very powerful movie, even if the casting decisions aren't ideal.