Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Goals 2010

My junior year of high school, I created a binder for colleges I was interested in. I made a chart that included the size of each school's student body, the average SAT score, the tuition, and the application deadline. When it came to where I went to school (and there was never a question of IF I would go to school), I was prepared to be extremely organized and pragmatic.

But I only visited three schools. Earlham was too flat and empty (never mind that it was during its winter break). Centre College in Kentucky made the mistake of bragging that its frat parties and sorority parties were open to everyone. When I visited Denison University for the first time with my friend (who also ended up at Denison) and her dad, I felt like I belonged there. There was something about the hilliness of the campus and the way students moved: they walked quickly, as if eager to get to class, and seemed to smile at and nod to each student that passed. It wasn't my binder that convinced me to choose this school; it was my intuition. Denison was the only school to which I applied.

Of course there will always be a logical component to our choices in life - I wouldn't have gone to Denison had I not gotten scholarships and support from my parents - but we should also trust our instincts. The times I think I've gone most astray are when I privileged logic over feeling, instead of relying on both.

So I'd like to jump in. A part of me wants to aim for July to begin my MFA, using the March deadline as motivation to get into gear. But balancing guts and logic, I think the better option is to start next winter - July is that deadline. This will give me time to figure out finances, which job (if either) I want to quit, and to write a great admissions essay. I also want to get down to Asheville, visit the campus and professors.

This feels right, and it makes sense for me. (I'm taking for granted that I'd be accepted -- eek!)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 in review (cont.)

I suspect I'll do this a lot--review the past year--as it gives me a chance to do two of my favorite things: think about stuff, and try to make sense of it.

In so many ways, personally, it's been a great year.

I went to Australia and had an unforgettable experience there. There are moments--maybe I'm washing dishes (it happens every once in a while!), or trying to fall asleep, or silently cursing the driver in front of me who suddenly stopped to make a left but didn't use a turn signal--and I'm back down under. I'm nuzzling up to that stoned koala bear; I'm snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. Megan and I are trying on fashion hats and picking out boomerangs.

In July I went to Paris with my brother and his (then) girlfriend. I so enjoyed showing him the sights I had loved as well as experiencing new parts of the city.

And I've continued to write pretty regularly. Actually, when I look at the monthly breakdown, in 2008 I was only writing an entry about every week or every other week. But in 2009, I went from two or three posts a month to ten or fifteen per month. The increase roughly corresponds with my switch from full-time library work to part time (lose benefits, gain writing time!) Whether I'm feeling depressed, excited, melancholy, nervous or even, every once in a while, happy, I've updated.

It's through writing and reading my posts that I came to realize that I want to enter an MFA program; I've realized that many times. (Though realizing something and acting on it are two completely different things... Pending post: "Goals for 2010!")

Someone recently tweeted that 2009 is the George Bush of years. Looking at national and international events of the past year, it's easy to see that. Me, I'm still floating a bit, bouncing off walls, watching, waiting so see if I'll land. Maybe not until 2012 or 2015 (or whatever year in the future) will I be able to see the significance of this year (or lack thereof).

Sunday, December 27, 2009


My only aunt is back in the hospital, and Wednesday she was sedated and put on a ventilator. Thursday, after I picked up my 94-year-old grandfather from his house, he received a call from the hospital that she'd crashed and they'd had to shock her. We turned around and went straight to the hospital, where she had stabilized. I brought my grandfather back to his house, so he could get his car and return to the hospital while I went over to my mom's for Christmas Eve dinner.

He called with updates throughout the evening (more to reassure us that nothing had changed as we ate lasagna, split up the pecan pie he'd made, opened presents, and played trivial pursuit).

It's been incredibly surreal. I was glad to get back to work at the library yesterday. I need to take this extra time I have to catch up on grading and get organized for the rest of the quarter (as well as the beginning of next); but more likely, I see myself twiddling away the hours, waiting for something to happen.

Edited to get rid of a couple words.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

2009 in review

Sometimes things take a while to sink in. Reality changes, but we don't recognize the paradigm shift until much later.

I watched an interview last week with a mom and her two children who were a part of a larger group of African-American mothers and daughters who went to see Disney's latest movie, "The Princess and the Frog." This was the first Disney movie to have an African-American protagonist, and the mom discussed how important it was for her daughters to see a princess who "looked like them." It wasn't that she wanted her daughters to grow up and become princesses but that she didn't want them to grow up thinking that their options were somehow limited because of the color of their skin. She brought up the experiment, first conducted in 1939 but then replicated many times thereafter, in which little girls who were African American preferred white dolls over black dolls. How sad, she suggested, that they thought the doll that looked most like them wasn't beautiful.

But our reality is changing, and the moral arc of the universe is bending. Until this year, we only had one image of what an American President could look like (Morgan Freeman notwithstanding). I'm reminded of a Langston Hughes poem, written in 1925, called, "I, Too, Sing America":

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

When I hear the rhetoric about "Real America," the unfounded challenges to Obama's nationality, I also hear the echoes of those who sent Hughes to eat in the kitchen. I think, aren't they ashamed? But those voices are on the wrong side of history and will slowly become more obsolete. I look back at this past year and think Obama has accomplished a great deal; once (and if) the noise dies down, we'll better recognize that.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

(Not) Good Country People

Did you notice? The last post was written from 3rd person point-of-view? It felt weird and uncomfortable, as if I were representing someone else's views and opinions instead of my own. I hated writing essays for school; I procrastinated until all semblance of writer's block faded with the daylight. But I really enjoyed writing personal or reflective pieces, as well as fiction.

Someone wrote that it's much easier to agree on nothing than it is to agree on something. While "nothing" is always zero, there are many possible "somethings." This is why the Republicans were able to vote together so much during the Bush years, and this is why the health care reform process has been so painfully slow during the Obama era. I listen to the debate on the left: public option, and what kind of public option? Medicare buy-in? Subsidies? How much? They're debating actual issues! Compare that to the objections and self-removal from the process by the Republicans.

My point, here, is that when writing in 3rd person, I listed some typical liberal positions: gay marriage, universal health care, removal of troops, etc. But what I love about the democratic party is that it really does have room for a variety of positions. I know many people who call themselves democrats that don't support gay marriage, or that don't think a single-payer health care system is a viable option, or that believe our military has important roles to play in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many "somethings" democrats, liberals, progressives, whatever we are, believe in. We may not always agree on a singular point of view, but that's so much better than the alternative: a belief in "nothing."

I'm reminded of a quote (in bold, below) from Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." Joy-Hulga (named "Joy" by her mother, she lost her leg as a child; she changed her name to "Hulga" in order to accurately reflect the ugliness she felt) is being seduced by a used bible salesman. He wants her to remove her artificial leg. She initially refuses, as "she took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private." She asks hims why he wants to see it.

He says, "Because it's what makes you different. You ain't like anybody else."

Well with that, Joy-Hulga removes her artificial leg: "it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his."

But this being a Flannery O'Connor story, the used bible salesman steals the artificial leg after she resists him. He says to her, "You just a while ago said you didn't believe in nothing. I thought you was some girl!"

Unfortunately, Joy-Hulga had assumed he was just "good country people." She says, "You're a fine Christian! You're like them all - say one thing and do another."

He explains that he wasn't born yesterday and adds, "you ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" He leaves her stranded in a barn loft without her leg.

(Before we read O'Connor in class, I tell the students that she's my favorite short story author. After they've read the stories, many are slightly incredulous: such ugly and offensive characters!)

Anyway, even though the republican party is supposedly the Christian party, the party of "family values," it reminds me of O'Connor's Bible salesman. The party of "no." I wish there were more moderate voices on the right, joining the conversation. There is common ground between all people, but the right refuses to concede that. And as the party continues to push out moderate voices, it will become even more insular. Either way, I like my big tent: everyone's invited.

Edited to add a quote from Steve Benen's article in the Huffington Post that explains much more articulately just what I meant:

Progressive activists and progressive wonks are at each other's throats this week, but they want largely the same goals. Their differences are sincere and significant, but the intensity of their dispute is matched by the potency of their arguments.

And then turn your attention to the other side of the divide, and notice the quality of the arguments conservatives and Republicans have offered -- and continue to offer -- in this debate. Death panels. Socialism. Hitler. Government takeover. Socialized medicine. Incomprehensible charts. Incessant whining about the number of pages in a proposal.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where's My Unicorn?

An Obama supporter said yesterday about the Obama presidency and its current trajectory, "I'm very disappointed. I wanted my unicorn. Where's my unicorn?"

Many of us recognize that our expectations were high. But we didn't think they were unrealistic - after all, we helped get him elected. A lot of us expect gay marriage to be legalized; we expect our troops to come home from wherever they are; we expect a return to science and a strong commitment to combating global warming; we expect single-payer health insurance, quality public education and affordable higher education, sooner rather than later. These aren't exactly unicorns.

Marc Ambider, editor of the politics section of the Atlantic, asks, "Does Obama Hate Liberals?" He quickly answers that no, Obama does not hate liberals but instead "harbors contempt for ideologically driven special interest constituency politics." For the past couple years, many of us have projected our own beliefs onto him, our own struggles and aspirations. Because how he talks and approaches issues seem to account for disparate points of view (during the campaign, in particular), we have felt heard and validated. But when it comes to choosing a policy or direction, we see that our point of view was not chosen - instead it's some middle road that leaves us scratching our head. Still, he's the president of the United States, not liberal America or Blue State America. Obama has said on many occasions, don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

And so we wait. Health care reform will pass, barely. Many of us will be bitter because it will lack a public option or Medicare buy-in. But even with the public option, the reform would still represent tinkering around the edges; it would still be a far cry from single-payer. The bill is better than what we have now, though. The bill isn't perfect, and it may not even be good, but it's something. It's a start.

We still expect unicorns, but hopefully we can settle for a decent horse.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wait and See

I've got one class going pretty smoothly. After many quarters, each one with alterations and improvements, I've gotten comfortable, with few surprises. I've taught my other class three times - should be enough time to make changes. But this one has doubled in size each quarter. Behaviors that worked for a few people don't work for a couple dozen. This quarter especially, I'm dealing with a winter break that eats up much of our class time. I made concessions to the syllabus. Adjusted expectations. While I consider this to be one of my strong suits - my flexibility and my ability to reflect and adapt - I think I've come across this quarter much weaker. And so today, when much of the class was absent due to sickness, job interviews, and omigodihaveabigtesttomorrow ("let's skip English to study!") I see the result of my lax attitude.

I give weekly quizzes in the first class, as soon as class begins. This results in great attendance as well as punctuality, not to mention the fact that students get immediate feedback on how they're doing. I think next quarter I'll start doing the same thing in the second class. It's literature, so the quizzes will be over the readings.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

If 40 is not the new 12, then 29 is not the new 21.

I always enjoy Judith Warner's writing over at the New York Times. Until recently, she penned the weekly column, Domestic Disturbances, in which she wrote about motherhood and modern life. Now she contributes to the Opinionator, where her columns have a similar focus. I like her style and voice - personal, honest, smart - and how she looks for connections between trends and behaviors, using herself and her family as models.

In her most recent column for the Opinionator, "40 Is Not the New 12," Warner describes a piece about bullying that she attempted to write a few years ago. She wanted to visit a girl who had been "particularly cruel" to her in junior high in order to reach some kind of understanding. Warner was unable to locate the "bully," but she did fine another classmate who remembered things differently: Warner wasn't bullied; rather, Warner deserted her and others for a more popular clique.

The piece goes on to describe and reflect on the nature of memories, especially of a time in each of our lives so wrought with daily crises and hormones. She wonders about the impulse of mothers to revisit these experiences, using their daughters as proxies:
These days, I come back a lot to memories of 7th and 8th grade (and the unreliable narrators of those memories), because my elder daughter, Julia, is now in 7th grade, which means, of late, that she lives in a world filled with endless girl dramas of the most unfortunate and, alas, ordinary kind.

Warner suggests that parents, especially--or uniquely?--mothers, want to make sense of their children's experiences, or at the least, help the children make sense of those experiences. Frame them in some kind of narrative, one that allows them to dismiss some experiences and heighten others. But, she concludes,

I’m not sure that our selves really are so continuous. And the experiences of childhood are not really as universal — i.e., as accessible to us as parents — as we’d like to believe.

That is, each of us has a right to our daily traumas; on our own, we'll write our narrative.

I enjoyed reading this piece, but it was the comment section that drew my attention more than Warner's column itself. Many reflected on being bullied, being bullies, or being both. Others wondered about their own children. A few described experiences at lunch with distracted peers, texting their daughters, being BFFs. But one wrote the following:

Maybe it would be good if the economy collapsed totally or we had a total war like WWII so women would have to spend all their time focused on tilling the fields, working in factories or doing something constructive to keep themselves and their families in food, shelter and clothing, leaving them no time to think about the silliness that is the subject of this article. I cannot imagine productive intelligent women (whether holders of one or more degrees or possessing little education) wasting time on such foolishness. Indeed, I'll bet women who were successful mothers in years past never did.

If only women would chop Maslow's hierarchy of needs in half: food, clothing, shelter. None of that silly happiness stuff and, god forbid, self-actualization, this commenter implies.

Actually, I think many of us - men and women alike, though I imagine (maybe wrongly?) that it's women, more so - experience that guilt. We know that there are those with real problems: hunger, homelessness, lack of opportunities. We know that regardless of what's going on in our own life, someone, somewhere, has it far worse. We know it's a relative luxury to wonder about things, to seek meaningful connections. But I also think that this knowledge contributes to our ambivalence - dually holding the desire for better and the fear and guilt of having better.

And I'm realizing that, in general, women aren't encouraged to do and have better in the same way that men are.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grown-up Things

My manager, today, told me I should really look into buying a house "because you'll get an $8000 credit, which is great." She said that if I'm handy at all, I could get a place that needs repairs for really cheap. I replied that I'm not handy at all, but she counted that all I need to do is be able to read, and I could figure the rest out. Eek. It's one thing if I'm married and have a husband who likes to "fix" things. But the idea of being personally responsible for the maintenance of an entire home fills me with dread and discomfort. I still haven't brought myself to call my landlord about a slow drain (it's in my kitchen sink; I don't do dishes enough that it's gotten in my way).

I guess it is a "grown up" thing to do - buy a house. But I know myself: I'm not ready, financially or emotionally.

Speaking of emotional, the U.C. Bearcats coach who led the team to consecutive Big East titles and, this year, to an undefeated season, has accepted the job at Notre Dame. There are a lot of heavy hearts here in Cincinnati. As someone who came from a Catholic family - Dad's side Irish - I grew up rooting for the Fighting Irish. My family and I went to South Bend when I was a child just to see the campus, and then again when I was in junior high to see a football game. (My dad and brother were there when they filmed the crowd scenes for the movie "Rudy.") We went again a few years ago for a game - they played Purdue and came from behind to win.

I'm sad for U.C. Like many others, I jumped on this bandwagon of success. But I've been cheering on Notre Dame for much longer, and I hope Brian Kelly does well there. Just as I hope that the new coach of the Bearcats is able to pick up where Kelly left off.

Edited to change "kitchen sin" to "kitchen sink.":)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterback

I learned a long time ago that I'm not cut out for sports. My throws are awkward and if you yell at me to catch something, I'm much more likely to duck instead. In other words, you don't want me on your team.

But something strange happened when I took a biology class in high school. If we reported the score of the previous night's Cleveland Indians baseball game on our quizzes, we could earn extra credit. (This seems much stranger to me now than it did at the time!) By checking that little box score every day, I became a baseball follower. And I quickly transferred that to our home team, the Cincinnati Reds. I learned stats, abbreviations, records. Soon, my competitive nature took over. While I couldn't throw to save my life, I could do it vicariously through Barry Larkin. Hal Morris. Jason LaRue.

Cincinnati is a wonderful sports town, full of passionate and dedicated fans. From the Bearcats to the Bengals to the Reds, the success of our teams lifts the spirits of an entire city; it certainly lifts mine.


Saturday, December 5, 2009


December 4th, my mom and I had gone downtown to the Main library. I borrowed a John Grisham book. That night, in the house we'd been living in for less than a month, I picked out a melon-colored teeshirt and plaid pullover hoodie to wear on Monday.

But for all those details I remember about December 4th, I don't recall a thing about the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. I collected details afterward. My backpack, weighted down with textbooks, dented the front of the police car that hit me. That melon shirt and plaid hoodie were cut off of me in the ambulance.

Anyway, today's another fifth of December. I woke up at 1am and was unable to fall back asleep. I think about those things I don't remember more than the things I do remember. This date doesn't pass quietly for me.

I'm looking forward to sleeping tonight; maybe I'll write a bit more, grade some papers, clean.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Quick note

I have to laugh. Forster's oft-quoted (by me) phrase, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" comes back to me as I look at my past few entries. They're all about gratitude, goodness, optimism. This strikes me as amusing because a. I certainly didn't plan that, and b. usually around this time of year I'm somewhere on the spectrum between melancholy and depression. It's typically seasonal, and I muddle through it. Ah, I'm not complaining. Just waiting for a shoe to drop.

But even right now: I'm finishing grading stories--I resent that I have to put numerical grades on creative pieces, although some certainly show more effort and polish than others--and getting ready to watch one of my favorite shows, "Glee." It's a show that exudes optimism and spunk, bordering on corniness.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Season of Good

I don't have to look long and hard to find stories about decline here in the U.S. or abroad. From the couple that crashed the White House State Dinner and the attention given to this attention-seeking pair (I won't even link to them - take that!), to Switzerland banning the construction of new Minarets, there's plenty to worry about. But if I look a little longer and harder, I can confirm my suspicions: we're naturally good, naturally caring, and naturally altruistic.

In an article published yesterday, We May Be Born With an Urge to Help, author Nicholas Wade describes the helpful behavior of infants:
From the age of 12 months [infants] will point at objects that an adult pretends to have lost. Chimpanzees, by contrast, never point at things for each other, and when they point for people, it seems to be as a command to go fetch something rather than to share information.
A biologist quoted in the article, Frans de Waal, likewise says that humans are "preprogrammed to reach out":
Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”
(And here I digress to note that so many Americans still reject science!)

Another article from the times, The Biology Behind the Milk of Human Kindness, explains how new research suggests that the hormone Oxytocin "underlies the twin emotional pillars of civilized life, our capacity to feel empathy and trust."

Imagine: we're born kind and capable of empathy and trust. We care and help. That we are taught and conditioned from an early age to distrust, to reject, to (in some cases) hate - this is heartbreaking to me. But again, this moral universe of ours, slowly bends toward justice. As more of us grow up in a multicultural society with different races, sexual orientations, and genders holding a variety of positions of power, so too will our society grow.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Good intentions

Okay, I'm working on a story. My protagonist is a little creepy, but his intentions are good. I've had the basic plot sketched out for quite some time; what better time to start fleshing it out than Thanksgiving morning?

I love that moment when an idea turns into sentences and characters and dialog, and before long, those characters are telling me what to write or how they should behave. That doesn't mean those sentences are any good or that the characters are engaging, only that it's pretty cool that they have their own power.

Here's a picture of my brother Jonah, from last Thanksgiving. I forgot how unseasonably warm it had been last year, too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gratitude on Thanksgiving Eve

Oh, things to be grateful for:
  • both my brothers calling me yesterday, checking our Thanksgiving plans, making sure there wasn't anything else each could bring;
  • my 87 year-old grandmother, insistent, relishing the chance to prepare another turkey dinner;
  • my mom, hating parades, but enjoying getting her house ready for the Christmas season more than anything else;
  • my dad, in Kenya, helping me to keep things in perspective, and technology, for allowing us to stay in such close contact;
  • and my friends, near and far, showing me such kindness and warmth.
And can I be grateful for the Muppets, too? At a time when entertainment is often vulgar and based on the denigration of others, the Muppets are simply joyful.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Dream More than Others Think Practical"

~ Howard Schultz

Warren Wilson's MFA program looks promising, at least as far as their course design and faculty are concerned. I need to schedule a visit. Tour the campus, talk to teachers. The interesting part about starting this journey later (as opposed to right after undergrad) is that I'm more concerned with finding a program that fits me and my needs, rather than fitting myself to a program.

So far, I haven't found an advertised technology component to these programs. Sure, much of the coursework is done online, and most of the resources will be on the internet, but I want more information about publishing in this new-media environment. How does one make money on the written word, when there's so much writing available for free? It's already impractical enough for me to consider going further into debt...

...Then again, I'm hardly on the look out for "practical." I want to go on sabbatical, simplify. Not have the money to buy yet another pair of brown boots. I want to use and demonstrate my resourcefulness, financially, emotionally, and intellectually.

I got up at 6 this morning to finish grading papers. I think I'm all finished. Out of 37 papers, a few really stood out. My favorite was about a parrot named "Sinbad."

Ashville, NC

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Then they swarm around me

Week four of the quarter, we tackle poetry and literary devices. Across the various campuses of my school, English teachers use the same syllabus; week four, we're all tackling poetry and literary devices. Last quarter, on here, I talked about the poems we discuss. I still used the same four poems--I've almost got them all memorized, dammit!--but I approached the lesson differently today.

I had asked each student to choose one poem out of the four and then to write a response to it in preparation for today's class. Then students got together with the other students who had chosen the same poem. Interestingly, twelve chose "Phenomenal Woman," ten chose "Dream Deferred," and a few each chose "Do Not Go Gently" and "Road Less Traveled." Within their groups (and I divided the larger groups into smaller ones), students identified literary devices within the poem, how those devices contributed to their understanding and/or appreciation, and why this particular poem resonated with their group. They also had to choose someone to recite the poem for the class.

(Something interesting: in my class of 37, I have 7 male students--the most guys I've had in one single class--but still less than twenty percent of the class. Out of the four poems, three were read by males, and I have a few boring theories as to why this is so. I bit my cheeks to keep from smiling when a fifty-something male read Angelou's anthem: "Pretty women wonder where my secret lies..." )

Anyway, this went well; however, I had trouble regrouping afterward. Students were talking over me - not loudly, but it was distracting nonetheless. My usual tactics for halting those discussions didn't work. I have a week to think about it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Moral Universe

The library levy in Cincinnati passed a couple weeks ago by a 3-1 margin; in fact, levies for the Museum Center, MRDD, and Cincinnati Public Schools all passed by significant margins. As trying as these times are, people voted with their hearts and minds and not with their pocket books.

I remember reading a poll this summer, right as the health care debate was gaining steam, and two facts stood out to me: 1. Most people were for reform, and 2. Most people didn't think reform would help them, personally. In other words, they wanted reform because they thought it would benefit society as a whole.

Most of our leaders have shied away from appealing to our better angels (our sense of decency, fairness, and justice) and instead marketed health care reform in terms of something for ourselves only. They tell us to ask: How can I, personally, have better choices? How can I save a buck or two? Or, on the flip side, demand: How is this reform going to take away my choices? With the help of the news media, it's no surprise that this debate has descended into hyperbole.

It's hard not to become disheartened. Just this morning, an article appeared in the New York Times described how
statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.
Twenty-two Republicans and twenty Democrats (look! bipartisanship!) included lobbyists' language, from Genentech and other companies, in "statements for publication in the Congressional Record." It should be no surprise that lobbyists conduct "outreach" to members of congress. But there's something almost nefarious about the repetition of lobbyists' language across party aisles. As I tell my students, clarity of thought and clarity of writing are interconnected; you don't have one without the other.

Where do I find heart? A well-turned phrase goes a long way with me, and when I first read "Dreams From My Father" in 2006 or 2007, I knew this Obama person was someone special. He wrote with such poetry and compassion about his life and the world around him. From that first book to his speech on race during the primary season, Barack Obama has continued to demonstrate clarity of thought and clarity of writing.

Quoted by President Obama and Martin Luther King, preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker said
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I can calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.*
Parker died before slavery was abolished, but his words and writing suggest that he knew it was coming, whether in 1865 or 1965. His words and ideas persist.

This health care debate, the coming debates about global warming and financial reform, the ongoing debate about Afghanistan: there will continue be noise from all sides, amplified and regurgitated on cable tv, but I have to hope and believe that truth and decency will emerge at some point, quieting the noise.

* Thanks to for the unedited Parker quote

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

No Worries, Mate

When I was a child, my favorite phrase was "I'm bored." I used it to signal my dissatisfaction with whatever activity or people surrounded me. And I usually uttered to my mother, who always, no matter how many times I'd said it, had a new suggestion: call a friend, read a book, draw a picture, etc. If I'd had the word then, I probably would have said, "I'm experiencing ennui," just to be extra annoying. Despite myriad options, I always had trouble filling empty space.

I don't have trouble filling that space anymore. This is mostly a good thing. More Sydney pictures here. Skyrail pics from Kuranda (near Cairns) here. A few pics from the Blue Mountains here. I've been keeping up with the developments on health care, but it's been moving so quickly that any comment I make about it seems moot within a couple days.

President Obama spoke at Fort Hood yesterday, giving, I think, his best speech since inauguration. It was a moving tribute to those that lost their lives on American soil last week, as well as to those who continue to serve and sacrifice in wars for which "there is not always a simple ceremony that signals our troops' success -- no surrender papers to be signed, or capital to be claimed." I'll surely think of them today, Veterans Day.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

"You know, Bush really f*%ked things up for everyone."

~ Intoxicated Sydneysider

While riding the skyrail in Kuranda, Megan and I shared a gondola with a couple from Western Australia. We learned a bit about the politics of the country. In WA, they don't like those "East Coast elites" (i.e., Sydney, Canberra, etc.) telling them what to do or how to live. One of the hot-button issues was daylight savings - the east coast cities preferred them, according to this couple, while working citizens from their area opposed it. They alluded to the fact that citizens are required to vote or else they face a fine.

But what interested me was how similar the arguments there are to the arguments here. The details may differ, but the ideas are the same. What role should the government play in our lives? What responsibilities belong to the government, and what belong to us alone? (We had another conversation about politics our last night in Sydney with a young person, drunk, who stole Megan's olives without asking; this drunk woman's main point: "You know, Bush really f*%ked things up for everyone.")

I uploaded more pictures to flickr. I wasn't very discriminating as I took picture after picture.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quick hits

That post-trip/new quarter anxiety is subsiding. I'm keeping up with emails and reducing the amount of assignments I collect to grade after asking myself, "Is this benefiting the student?" I'm not eliminating all assessment of non-essay writing, but I'm increasing the amount of low-pressure (non-graded) writing that we do in class. One of the things I try to convey is that writing is a process - the first draft should never be your best and final draft, regardless of how good it seems. And if students are graded on that first draft, what kind of message am I sending?

Tomorrow we'll discuss "A Rose for Emily" - I like this story better each time I read it. I just love the moment where Miss Emily goes to the pharmacist and asks for rat poison - arsenic. The sweet, unknowing pharmacist says that he's required to ask her what it's for, and
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up. ... When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: "For Rats."
Because of Faulkner's narrative structure, the reader doesn't know (unless he or she is more perceptive than I) who the rat is. But after I've read it a few times, I crack up when she opens the poison "for rats."

The library levy passed here in Cincinnati, and Issue 9 (the proposal that would have made it harder for the city to develop any rail system, whether street cars or light rail) failed. In all it was a good election night. But I couldn't help but think about last year and the excitement coursing through the nation. It would be impossible for all Obama's supporters, those thousands of volunteers who canvassed and donated money and phone banked, to sustain that energy through his presidency; unfortunately, I think that kind of energy would be necessary for him to carry out his ambitious agenda. As it stands, I think he's doing the best he can. One year later, the sounds and images from that night--and what it meant to so many of us--still resonate.

Edited to fix the quote from "A Rose for Emily," which--despite multiple readings--I had misquoted. D'oh!

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Little Bit of Relevance

I've alluded to my accident: hit by a car, put into a coma, lost motor and cognitive functions, and resided in hospital for weeks. In all, my outcomes were the "best case scenario." All potential brain damage was not permanent. Still, those weeks I couldn't talk; couldn't walk; couldn't see the second, less obvious answer to questions posed by my speech therapist, seemed infinite at the time.

That knowledge that I used to be smart, that I used to be able to play the piano, plagued me as I tried to play Für Elise on a keyboard in the lounge area. I knew the melody, I knew the keys, but my fingers were unable to play. I knew something wasn't right, but I lacked the ability to think about it, comprehend it. At the time, I didn't become depressed about my diminished intelligence or piano skills. I took it in a very matter-of-fact manner: "Hmm," I'd thought. "How interesting."

Even now, as I reflect, I think, "How interesting." I often think about that singular purpose I'd had and the fact that I don't really have anything analogous, today. But it remains a resource, an experience I'll keep with me for the next great battle.

An article today in the New York Times discussed Kierkegaard and despair vs. depression. The article suggests that with advances in science and medicine, we are apt to offer medicine as a fix for anything other than happiness; that we assume feelings of melancholy or despair can be remedied by therapy:
And in an age when all psychic life is being understood in terms of neurotransmitters, the art of introspection has become passé.
As someone who, again, embraces the melancholy, I related to the article. I can think and rationalize my way out of "despair," but depression is a much harder rat to kill. I'm lucky in that I haven't had to kill that rat in years.

Went back to five after five tonight, after missing a week for Australia(!), and I find that my tolerance has decreased (that, or the fact that I skipped food at two of the stations but still drank the wine). Oh well. Sleep will cure that...

Edited 11/01 to clarify a couple things...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Random tired musing

I had a coke with dinner tonight, which was kind of silly, given that I didn't eat until after 8pm. Through no conscious effort, my coffee consumption has decreased (over ten days since my last Starbucks!), and thus, perhaps, my tolerance for caffeine has likewise decreased. *Consequently, I'm awake at nearly 2am searching for connections between unrelated events. Looking for bits of **relevancies where there may be none.

First day of class this morning. On the one hand, I feel like I'm getting better. My teacher-ing now would kick my 2007 teacher-ing's ass. But it seems like a false comparison. Today's class was double the size of my first class back then. Any shortcomings I had, I think, were overcome by more individualized instruction; more time spent after class or responding to emails.

Anyway. I need to be more organized. And this early morning, I suppose, that should begin with at least a few hours of sleep.

* Check out all my transition words!
** Spell check tells me "relevancies" is not a word while "irrelevancies" is one; I object!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Home Sweet Home

I say that ("home sweet home"), but I'd rather not be here, sitting in my chair, surrounded by my stuff. My fridge is empty and my suitcase isn't unpacked. Why not hop on the next plane to Miami or Vancouver or Jakarta? (Oh right, I ran out of money...)

I'll feel better about being home once I see friends and family, or tomorrow once I get the new quarter started. Right now, in between printing the new syllabus and tweaking tomorrow's lesson plan, I'm uploading my pictures to flickr: To start, images from our fourth day in Australia, when we took a day cruise to the outer-banks of the Great Barrier Reef.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Quick hello (or, I should say, G'day!)

I'm sitting at the internet terminal of my lovely hostel in Sydney. It's bareboned, reminding me of my freshman year dorm at Denison: it's clean, occasionally raucous, and serves its purpose.

I'm loving Sydney, and I especially enjoyed my trip up to Cairns and to the Great Barrier Reef. Pictures are coming, I promise.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Quick hits

  • A student said to me, after thanking me for the class, "You don't give yourself enough credit." And I immediately thought, man, I must be projecting some serious insecurities if I have students trying to help me buck up!
  • I leave on Saturday!
  • My car's a mess of old City Beats, blankets, a pair of shoes, three coffee mugs.
  • My living room floor's a mess, too. I'm sitting in the middle of it, down blanket and laptop covering me, with a space heater aimed at me. I'm still cold.
  • Just watched the last forty minutes of Days of Our Lives... I've watched it off and on since I was probably ten, when Carly was buried alive and Marlena was possessed by the devil. Who am I to judge you for watching Dancing with the Stars?
  • I don't remember the last time I've had real food in my house (unless granola bars and coffee count as real food).
  • That Skyline 3-way I just finished sure was good.
I found this quote:

"There is probably no more obnoxious class of citizen, taken end for end, than the returning vacationist." ~Robert Benchley

I apologize in advance!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Still going to a land down under...

I give one more exam tomorrow, and then I'm done until the next quarter begins (at the end of October). This quarter, like the one before it, has shaken me a bit. I find myself asking, What the hell am I doing, teaching. Who the hell am I to think that I can stand up there, imparting my "knowledge."

My confidence has always come from within, more than without. Compliments mean nothing until I have internalized it. What I need to do is figure out some way to measure gains. To have something I can look at and think about and analyze. My syllabus includes a list of outcomes. How to quantify those?

And yes, I'm being hard on myself. I speak with my mom, a teacher; her husband, a college professor: they deal with the same problems I do. A few weeks ago I wrote about a student who challenged me in class. We talked afterwards, and a few times since then, and on the last day she thanked me for a great quarter. "I learned a lot," she said. Maybe I just need to let that sink in some more, as well as other similar statements from other students.

Haha - it suddenly strikes me that I'm looking for excuses to move forward with my MFA plans. Whine, whine, whine. I'll see what I say later.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wedding Belle

My stat of the weekend: Of eleven Denison grads (all of us in our mid- to late-twenties) at my friend Lisa's wedding Saturday evening, ten are married.

And I think what I recognized in those seven couples (three were pairs of Denisonians; the other four went outside the college) was a groundedness. Each had their anchor, that person they could nudge, roll their eyes or smile at; that person to arrive with and leave with. Interestingly, all of them are living somewhere different than their hometowns, and most have moved multiple times for school, work, or military. But through new cities, new homes, new jobs, they have had a consistency in partner.

(Me, I may not have that anchor - I'm floating, untethered - but right now I have my hometown. My roots, my family, all in one place.)

It was a lovely wedding. Lisa's family owns a winery, and they closed it for the evening. Lights and gauzy white cloth were draped from the ceiling, and after rings were exchanged and vows were said, one of our friends gave a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss's, "Oh the Places You'll Go!"

We estimated that there was enough bottles of wine for each guest to have an entire one (though since I had to drive back to the hotel, I only drank a couple glasses throughout the evening); needless to say, this made for a festive atmosphere!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"The important thing is not to stop questioning"

~ Albert Einstein

My MFA plans are on the back seat of my car next to the blanket that I sat on in August for an outdoor performance of "Romeo and Juliet." I think there are a couple coffee mugs, too, and google map directions to places I've already visited. I'm going to take care of all of things - make plans, bring the blanket and mugs inside, and throw away the directions - but not right now.

I'm certainly not putting anything off; I still have the same dates in mind. But between getting through the end of the quarter and planning for the trip, I can't concentrate on it. I don't know where I'm going to go, what I'm going to submit, or whether I'll have to take any kind of GRE. All those questions and answers are on the back seat.

Anyway. My questioning. It's not going to stop, of course, but sometimes it's better NOT to question everything. Enjoy the road.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Teachable Moments

Paul Krugman has a great op-ed piece today in The New York Times entitled, The Politics of Spite, about the modern republican party and its opposition to anything and everything Obama's administration puts forward. From Chicago's Olympics bid to health care reform, the GOP's position "has all the emotional maturity of a bratty 13-year-old." But then he brings up something that, as someone who was studying for her SATs at the same time as Congress was impeaching Clinton, I was only vaguely aware of:

Anyone surprised by the venomous, over-the-top opposition to Mr. Obama must have forgotten the Clinton years. Remember when Rush Limbaugh suggested that Hillary Clinton was a party to murder? When Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in an attempt to bully Bill Clinton into accepting those Medicare cuts? And let’s not even talk about the impeachment saga.

The only difference now is that the G.O.P. is in a weaker position, having lost control not just of Congress but, to a large extent, of the terms of debate. The public no longer buys conservative ideology the way it used to; the old attacks on Big Government and paeans to the magic of the marketplace have lost their resonance. Yet conservatives retain their belief that they, and only they, should govern.

I don't know if this comforts or scares me. The other day I was talking with my mom about what the difference might have been had Hillary Clinton become president instead; I think it might be worse. I think we would see the same irrationality and vitriol from the right, but instead of veiled racism, we'd see overt misogyny.

Back to the doctor for a follow-up appointment. All should be well.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Going to a land down under...

Two weeks from today, I'll be 30,000ft above the Pacific Ocean, en route to Sydney, Australia. Because of the time difference, I'll be inside the aircraft for the whole of Sunday (I don't suppose I'll be able to get updates on the Bengals' game... ) Usually my itineraries are pretty open; but because I'll have just seven days in this new continent, I have a good idea of what I'm going to do each day. (I'm already looking forward to three weeks from today, coming home and writing about my experiences and posting pictures!)

I'm excited to be disconnected for some time, too. The Earth will continue to rotate, Fox news will continue to slander the president--and here I continue to experience mild outrage at this unsubtle attempt to undermine this administration every step of the way; how are they not treasonous? were we like this during the Bush years?--and health care will or will not get passed.

Australia: We'll tour the Sydney Opera House, climb the pylon on the Harbour Bridge, get invited to eat shrimp on the barbie, trek through a rain forest, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and hug a koala bear.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tale of Two Worlds

I like to think that I came to my politics on my own, that I studied all sides and points of view and came to the conclusion that, yes, I am a democrat, I believe in a strong federal government, and I believe that government has a responsibility to help the least among us.

But my politics were formed long before I could study the issues and articulate my own ideology. Some of my earliest memories are of protests. I never heard the word "Reagan" or "Republican" without some disparaging remark from my mother. The second wedding I ever attended was between two women. It wasn't one thing; it was lots of things. I don't know how I could have been brought up how I was and become anything but a bleeding-heart liberal.

While Bush was president (for all but a couple years of my adult life), I got used to being a minority party. I could make fun of the president (haha "nuke-yoo-ler") and go to protests (boo "No Child Left Behind," boo Anti-Choice, boo Iraq invasion) and relish the frustration and freedom that comes from not being in charge. As I've said before, it's much easier to tear something apart than it is to solve or build.

But now we're in charge. We have an intellectual, progressive president who reads and writes for pleasure. We swept the house and senate to have majorities in both. We have a public who, despite the noise on cable, supports meaningful health care reform. And yet there seems to be two entirely different conversations going on, neither of which involves most Americans. The first is among the faction that has decided that President Obama is either illegitimate or a stone's throw away from a fascist, communist dictator. This group is talking about death panels and rationing and ACORN. Another conversation is going on more privately between lawmakers and the insurance industry. Democrats and Republicans alike seem to be holding legislation hostage at the request of lobbyists.

But most of us, we're not part of this conversation. We are seeing budgets slashed, our friends laid off, and others struggling to get by. We are educated, we're engaged, but the more shut out of the process we are--candidate Obama wanted these health care debates to be broadcast in the open, live, on C-Span--the more disenfranchised we feel.

Winning cures all ills, though; the Bengals have won two in a row, so no one is going to complain about lack of throws his way. Once health care goes through, unemployment drops, and tangible signs of an economic recovery appear, the loony fringe may recede.

I think of a quote I read from one of Al Gore's books: "The opposite of reason is fear." So many people are (wrongfully, in my opinion) fearful, today. They seem to see no common ground. While I'd love for Obama to dictate what should (and should not) be done to reform health care, I think that might only increase fear and resentment as well as decrease reason and engagement. Slow as this is, process is important.

And so here I am again, faced with the task of grading revisions and thinking of new and better ways to make Othello interesting and relevant to nursing students, instead doing my own writing. It's a breath of fresh air to me, sitting here on my couch, my laptop in front of me and my space heater aimed directly at me, typing my own words instead of figuring out numerical scores for creative pieces. (This late in the quarter, I'm tempted to use smilies and "Way to Go!" stickers.) And with that, back to work I go.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Rise of Nutritionism

Weekends go by far too fast. And given that I work just about every single Saturday, they often feel non-existent.

Now, as I push myself to finish grading all 36 essays, I'm torn between going to bed (I need sleep), finishing grading (I work until 8pm tomorrow, and class meets Tuesday morning), and reading more descriptions of the BENGALS' WIN OVER THE STEELERS!!!

(Clearly, I've shoved all three options aside and chosen instead to update my blog: Priorities.)

This afternoon I went to see Michael Pollan speak at Xavier University. Author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan lectured on nutrition--nutritionism was his term--and agriculture in American society. He rightly asked why America, so obsessed with health and nutrition, is so unhealthy. We think of food, he said, as nutrition delivery instruments. They carry vitamin C, protein, and cholesterol. But food is much more mysterious. He described a group in Australia, Aborigines, who had moved to the city and ate "Western-style" meals -- a meat and two vegetables; processed food; fast food--and developed heart disease and type-II diabetes. They went back to the land, getting their food by hunting and gathering, and the symptoms went away. While food packagers seek ways to tinker around the edges -- get rid of trans fast, replace sugar with Splenda -- Pollan notes that the whole way Americans approach food is broken; tinkering won't do.

The most important thing he said applied to the amount of money we spend on preventable chronic illnesses (heart disease, type II diabetes). By changing the way we consume food, we could significantly alter how much is spent treating these. He said: "'Health care crisis' is just a synonym for the catastrophe that is the American diet."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Quick hits

It's another rainy day in Cincinnati. I'm rather enjoying the gloominess and mild temperatures as well as the legitimate excuse to avoid running. (And I can wear my Kenya scarves).

I'm off to work in a few minutes, but here's a quick update:
  • No movement on the MFA front; the end of the quarter is kicking my butt, and I haven't had time to focus on researching schools, putting together portfolios, and gathering references.
  • There are still not enough hours in the day. Supposedly sleep helps keep colds at bay. I decided a while ago that a full-night's sleep was key to my mental stability, and now there's evidence that I have that sleep to thank for my relatively good health these past few years.
  • The Reds have been winning a lot lately; why couldn't they have done that in June and August???
  • I'm psyched that the Bengals are 1-1. This city, as pessimistic as we get about the Bengals, will absolutely explode with joy and excitement if the Bengals make a playoff run.
Bye for now :)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cured in 150 minutes!

For two and a half hours today, I had cancer. It was palpable; I felt it. I stood in that shower, suddenly jolted from whatever minor annoyance I'd been thinking about, dried off, and then sat down at my computer wondering, "What do I do now?"

My primary care physician reduced her client-load a couple years ago, so I was doctorless. I looked up urgent care, but their services didn't seem appropriate. I thought about calling nana but didn't want to worry her. I didn't have a clue what I should do next, and so I thought about my family history of cancer and got uncharacteristically emotional.

But I can also be cold and calculating. I imagine people dying; I picture really bad things happening. I observe them, detached, in my mind, and watch how events transpire. By the time I managed to get a referral and appointment for a mere 90 minutes later, I was already seeing myself leaving one of my jobs and my apartment. I had some perverse pleasure in imagining my world and priorities shifted.

Two and a half hours after I had diagnosed myself, my new doctor (friendly, grandfatherly; reminded me of my pediatrician) assured me there was no cancer. I'd have felt silly getting so worked up about it if not for my family history or my string of good health these past few years: I'd thought, "I'm due for this."

I may whine and complain and obsess over small things, but life is remarkably good; I'm remarkably lucky. If nothing else, today's experience reminded me of that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"What is love anyway, and sorrow, and light?"

~ Natalie Goldberg

At my dad's suggestion, I've started reading "Long Quiet Highway," by Natalie Goldberg. She writes about her childhood, about becoming a writer, and about Zen. I'm especially drawn to her voice, the way each sentence has purpose and flows to the next:

Writing became the tool I used to digest my life and to understand, finally, the grace, the gratitude I could feel, not because everything was hunky-dory, but because we can use everything we are. Actually we have no choice. We can't use what someone else had--a great teacher, a terrific childhood. That is outside ourselves. And we can't avoid an inch of our own experience; if we do it causes a blur, a bleep, a puffy unreality. Our job is to wake up to everything, because if we slow down enough, we see we are everything.

Goldberg balances grand statements about writing and life with stories about teachers (her favorite was Mr. Clemente, from whom she took English all four years of high school, and who never knew she cared), family, and others.

I love books about writing, writers on writing--not writers on craft: not style, dialogue, or characterization--but the process and struggle that comes with writing and being a writer. She stresses the importance of practice and discipline, of not giving in to that voice that says, "I'm tired" or "I'm hungry" or "I'm sick." Face that blank page, stare it down, and cover it with my words.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Better late than never...

As I've mentioned, I go to my grandma's every Sunday. I do laundry, eat my one actual meal for the week, and watch old movies or sports, depending what time of year it is. This past Sunday was emotionally exhausting for both of us as we cheered on the Bengals, only to have victory ripped from their hands (or rather, deflected by Leon Hall into the hands of Brandon Stokely).

Ugh. Anyway, Nana always asks about the wine tasting: What did I eat? Who was there?

This past Friday's had a Spanish theme:

Station One:
  • Pepper Soup with Lemon and Lime - this cold soup was rather hot, but would make a good salsa.
  • Domino De Eguren Protocolo Blanco - a nice white wine that went nicely with the hot (spicy) soup.
Station Two:
  • Black Bean Dip with Tortilla Chips - Just what the name describes, but very yummy!
  • Vega Sindoa 2008 Rosado - a decent rose
Station Three:
  • Pollo Con Salsa Fresca - Boneless chicken with white onion, garlic cloves, bay leaves, ground cumin, and ancho chili. Very tasty!
  • Campos Reales 2006 - Nice, balanced red
Station Four:
  • Carne Fajita Burrito - Skirt steak and all kinds of flavorful goodness wrapped up in a tortilla. Mmm.
  • Atalaya Almansa 2007 - As far as I remember, this was a dry red. Went nicely with the fajita.
Station Five:
  • Three Latin-themed cheeses:
  1. Queso Asadero - soft, almost like mozzerella. It would be good for melting, but bland by itself.
  2. Queso Cotija - tasted like parmesan.
  3. Queso de Mano - this raw goat's milk cheese was very flavorful and easily everyone's favorite. According to the notes, it is aged for a minimum of four months, and it's generally produced on a small scale.
  • Txomin Etxaniz 2007 Txakoli De Getaria - I think this was a light white, but usually station five is something sparkly.
Afterward we went to Lemon Grass for Thai Food. Mmm... Thai.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Going barefoot

Today knocked my socks off a bit.

I was challenged--in the middle of class--in such a manner that it was all I could do to keep standing up or not cry. But I recovered, they recovered, and we all talked it out. In total, it wasn't a bad thing. Sometimes we need our socks knocked off every once in a while to jar us out of complacency.
Next week, we'll try again; in six weeks I'll start over again. Get just a little closer; have that answer a little more polished.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Anything other than what I've been trying to be lately...

I had gotten into one of my little reflection ruts. I started thinking about myself--life, the big picture, identity, gender roles, blah blah blah--to the point where I had to find a youtube video with the "I Don't Wanna Be" theme. Haha! This task, this task! How do we know what we want to be? I feel privileged to be part of a family and community that allows me to explore (to succeed and to fail), and I wonder if some of the craziness that's going on in our society recently (birthers, 9/12ers, tea partiers) is the result of people buckling down, their own identities and roles being challenged by this Other.

Here's what's awesome: Instead of a straightforward production of the theme song, I could only find fan videos. And one baby. This knocked me right out of my momentary rut. Simplify, Rachel. Simplify and enjoy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Funky and Clunky APA

I met today with a student who received a low grade on a paper. She's allowed to revise it, but because of the subject matter, she didn't want to spend more time on it; she just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. We ended up talking for about 45 minutes, not just about organization and coherency (the main problems with the paper) but about the death penalty, Vegas, and non-biased language.

APA style recommends using non-biased language when referring to individuals with disabilities. That is, use language to "maintain the integrity of individuals as whole human beings." The idea is to identify the person first and the disability second. Instead of "disabled person," we refer to a "person with a disability." Instead of "schizophrenic," we say, "an individual with schizophrenia."

When I introduced this in class Tuesday, I got a rise out of more than a few students who said it seemed like overkill, or it contradicted my earlier pleas for conciseness. One of the guidelines is to see "people with disabilities as a resource and as contributing community members, not as a burden or problem," preferring the clunky "responsibilities of the community for inclusion and support" over "community support needs of individuals." No one is "confined" to a wheelchair; rather, he or she "uses" a wheelchair.

The same student I met with today had asked, "Does anyone ask the people what they want to be called?" She went on to describe her husband, paralyzed from the waist down years earlier after an accident. "He's a paraplegic," she said. "He wouldn't want anyone to tell him he couldn't call himself a 'paraplegic.'" She said he had to suffer through months of therapy to get into that wheelchair. "Now," she had said, "he's a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He owns that"

I couldn't and didn't argue. We talked a little about how members of any group have earned the right to refer to themselves however they choose. APA is simply a standard; it's neutral to the point of blandness. But throughout history we've seen language used to denigrate and marginalize in ways both obvious and not. APA is used to write scientific reports, articles on research studies. The neutrality will enable facts to speak for themselves.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It was a dark and stormy night...

When I set off on foot to return an overdue video to Blockbuster this evening, a part of me must have known that the sky was going to break open some time during the next 30 minutes. I was halfway there -- about half a mile from my house -- when it started to sprinkle, and I had just dropped off the video when it started to pour. So what began as a leisurely walk through the neighborhood to return a DVD turned into a mad sprint: if I get violently ill tomorrow, this is why.

This past Sunday I participated in the 30th annual Cheetah Run at the Cincinnati Zoo. Along with 1100 other runners - including moms with strollers, amazingly fit marathoners, and people of all shapes and sizes - I followed a very hilly path inside of and around the zoo. I managed to run for the first mile (a very hilly mile, I must say) and then alternated walking and jogging the rest of the 5k.

I was surprised by how much I was able to run, given that I've only run sporadically this summer. But having so many people around, including friends wanted to walk when I did and run when I did, provided a lot of motivation. Were I by myself, I wouldn't have gone as far. The rain this evening provided me a different motivation, but it worked just as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice..."

"...Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind." ~Catherine Drinker Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957

After college -- my four, glorious years inside the bubble! -- I knew I wasn't ready to commit myself to writing. It would be too insular. The words might have been there, but the experience to give them weight was not.

I was away at school when the twin towers were struck and, while deeply affected, I can't help but remember a short essay I wrote a couple weeks later. Responding to an article that suggested "postmodernism is dead" because the attack crystallized the notion of good/evil, right/wrong, I countered that postmodernism is more important than ever. The attacks, while clearly wrong and evil, were a part of a larger story. In the larger story, the roles aren't as clearly defined. At least, that's what I had argued at the time.

Generally speaking, my views haven't changed. My politics and my values are the same. But now those views, politics, and values are much more grounded in my experience. They are worth more to me, and I'm better able to articulate them.

Part of the process of applying to MFA programs is selecting 20-25 pages of work. I'm rereading these stories, so close to my heart, that I completed my senior year at college. They're all set in the neighborhood in which I grew up (and in which my mom and stepfather continue to live), and while the characters and situations are fictional, the backdrop is not. They visit the same corner deli that I did; they walk to the same park that I did. They look at the same polluted, muddy sky that I did.

But as I reread them, adding and removing commas when necessary, I think again of the bubble: that narrow, dome-shaped lens through which I viewed, analyzed, and came to understand (or so I thought) the world.

Maybe I would have succeeded, getting my MFA immediately after college. Maybe, by now, I'd have a book published or, at least, a few short stories. Maybe my world view would have expanded just through that process of growing older.

I doubt it though.

I wouldn't have worked in an inner-city Catholic School and learned how to keep score in volleyball.

I wouldn't have student-taught in an inner-city public school and learned that "Don and Marge" (our euphemism for happy hour at Don Pablo's) can be a girl's best friends after a really long day.

I wouldn't have taught preschool students in Kentucky, caught lice, and witnessed the death of a hermit crab at the hands of a sweet, troubled boy, helping me to realize my own limitations.

And I wouldn't have worked at the public library while teaching nursing students the art of writing APA-style. Both of these settings have allowed me to encounter people and perspectives so different from those that I would otherwise encounter.

All of these experiences, all of these pieces, are a part of me now. My 9/11 essay, today, might have the same central argument, but it would be grounded more in reality than academics. My stories, today, might still have an 8-year old protagonist, but her mother would have more dimension because, now, I've met that mother.

Writing is a process that involves getting our ideas out and coming up with a plan. If we try to get everything out at once, that's when we experience writer's block. Ideas are too big to get out in one push (in class, I draw a giant head with a big brick inside: "It's impossible to get it out at once; break it apart and then reform it into something even better.") So I've been getting this idea out, piece by piece, ever since college.

It's just taken me a while because I usually see the forest before the trees, and this forest wasn't ready until now.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

September 4th's Five After Five

We were well represented last night, and I was anxious to redeem myself following last week's Wild Turkey incident.

I accidentally tossed out the menu, but my favorite (besides the cheese) was station four: pulled pork barbecue. Mmm, mmm!

The library was rather peaceful, just how I like it. I printed off some full-text articles about August Wilson's Fences - we're discussing this play on Thursday. Even though I've read the play multiple times, and have twice used it in class, the articles gave me new insight. No matter how closely you've looked at something, you can always find something else.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Reading is the basics for all learning."

~ George W. Bush

When you study early childhood education, you learn all about "reading readiness." It sounds almost like a buzz phrase, empty. But research suggests that children who are read to, who come from homes in which books are available, have significant advantages over children who are not read to; who do not have books that are easily accessible. The former children will be ready to read whereas the latter children will not be, without interventions.

You learn that a lot of factors have a role in a child's ability to read, from environment to IQ. But the only causal relationship is that child's phonemic awareness - his or her recognition that words are made up of sounds. The greater a child's phonemic awareness, the more likely he or she is to be a successful reader. So how do parents increase their child's phonemic awareness? Play word games. Sing nursery rhymes. Toss words around, flip them, rhyme them, and toy with them.

I watched an old episode of Fareed Zakaria: GPS a couple weeks ago. Malcolm Gladwell appeared on the show to talk about his book, "Outliers." The part of their conversation that most struck me centered on the effect that small, early advantages had on future success. That is, early encouragement at a young age reaped huge rewards at later ages.

Gladwell used the example of reading. The difference between a six-year old who reads "a lot" and a six-year old who reads "a little" is very small. But the boy who reads a lot will read better; he will appreciate reading more; he will receive positive encouragement and thus rewards. By the time he's in junior high, he is an avid reader who enjoys more challenging works. He will be in accelerated classes and, later, in the advanged placement classes. The boy who reads a little, on the other hand, will not receive the same kind of encouragement. Because he does not read a lot, he will not improve as quickly; he certainly won't excel. When he gets to junior high, he will not join the accelerated classes. Even if the two boys have the same motivation, one has a leg up.

It's a combination of opportunity and personal motivation that predicts success. Think of Tiger Woods. Obviously, he is very talented. But he is also extremely motivated and was encouraged from a very young age.

Laziness pervades our culture. Laziness of thought, laziness of action, laziness of personal responsibility. As I sit and look at the piles of ungraded papers and dirty coffee mugs that surround me, I don't exclude myself. In the movie Idiocracy, an average guy from 2005 is put into hibernation only to wake up, 500 years later, to discover that he's the smartest guy on the planet. Society has devolved to the point where farms are watered with gatorade, the Oscar-winning film that year is called Ass, and patients at hospitals play slot machines in order to win a chance for treatment. The movie is extremely exaggerated. But parts of it still ring true.

Is it hyperbolic to suggest that we seem to reward the loudest only to devalue the most decent and sensical? I feel like we're sliding toward idiocracy. When a majority of people support a public option in spite of the media's misinformation and overrepresentation of insane, noisy protests, why the hell is our government capitulating? I want to believe that Obama's going to draw a line in the sand during his speech next week. That he'll make the case for clear and substantial reform. But all signs lately are suggesting the opposite: giving things up even though republicans won't vote yes, regardless. Rewarding insurance companies when their profits are through the roof, when they are the ones responsible for denying fair, affordable coverage.

We'll see. Anyway, tonight is five after five, followed by an encore viewing of the wonderful Dr. Horrible.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

“The healthy man does not torture others - generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers”

~ Carl Jung

One of the Daily Dish's guest bloggers, Jonah Lehrer, writes about the man, likely innocent, who was recently executed in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for a supposed arson that killed his two children. Exhaustive reviews suggest that mistakes were made by investigators from day one and that the evidence should not have been enough to convict this man.

In A Just World, Lehrer describes an experiment done in the sixties that resulted in the development of the Just World Hypothesis. Different groups of volunteers watch a woman tortured:

One group of volunteers is now given a choice: they can transfer the shocked subject to a different learning paradigm, where she is given positive reinforcements instead of painful punishments. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people choose to end the torture. They quickly act to rectify the injustice. When asked what they thought of the "learner," they described her as an innocent victim who didn't deserve to be shocked. That's why they saved her.

The other group of subjects, however, isn't allowed to rescue the volunteer undergoing the test. Instead, they are told a variety of different stories about the victim. Some were told that she would receive nothing in return for being tortured; others were told that she would be paid for her participation. And a final group was given the martyr scenario, in which the victim submits to a second round of torture so that the other volunteers might benefit from her pain. She is literally sacrificing herself for the group.

Lehrer goes on to describe how each of the groups made judgments about the victim based on the type of compensation she was receiving. Here was the conclusion:

the less money the volunteer received in compensation for her suffering the more the subjects disliked her. The people explained the woeful injustice by assuming that it was her own fault: she was shocked because she wasn't paying attention, or was incapable of learning, or that the pain would help her perform better. The martyrs fared even worse. Even though this victim was supposedly performing an act of altruism - she was suffering for the sake of others - the witnesses thought she was the most culpable of all. Her pain was proof of her guilt.
In other words, the observerers altered their judgment in order to reconcile their sense of moral justice. The results suggest that participants believe that if a woman is being tortured, surely she must deserve it. If a man is wrongly executed, ultimately it doesn't matter because he was probably a scummy person.

This discussion reminds me of a post by Marc Ambider not too long ago. He asks, does it matter if torture works? When we have a chrystalized sense of justice - what is right, what is wrong - and that justice is rooted not in moral consistency of individuals but rather the morality of institutions, whether the military or government, then we make the necessary cognitive adjustments to make all actions fit within that moral framework. Torture is wrong except when sponsored by our government.

It's certainly created some dissonance in my own mind. I've always believed, no matter what else is going on in my life or in the world, that people are good at heart and that ultimately we all want the same things: a chance for happiness for ourselves, those we love, and fellow man. But seeing how disingenuine politicians are and watching the mainstream media perpetuate falsehoods have been incredibly disturbing and disheartening.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Lion Sleeps Tonight (and, "The Dream Lives On")

Ted Kennedy's memorial, funeral, and burial services have been incredibly tasteful and appropriate. Given his stature and accomplishments, it's fitting that our sitting president gave his eulogy. While President gave a great speech, I think Kennedy's son, Ted Jr., stole the show. I'm embedding the first part of his speech. All of it is wonderful - funny and touching - but my favorite moment comes just before the fourth minute, when Ted Kennedy Jr. recalls a story from when he was twelve.

Who knows what impact Kennedy's death will have on the larger narrative of health care reform. I think that I and fellow progressives hope that the other democrats in the senate will feel a renewed call to pass meaningful legislation, i.e. with a public option.

Finally, click here for a collection of editorial cartoons from the day after Kennedy passed.