Saturday, May 30, 2009

To sleep, perchance to dream...

I'm hoping to get my head out of the fog that comes from sleeping just two or three hours in a night.  For the third time in the past couple weeks, I woke around 3am and could not fall back asleep. Luckily, today isn't a full day of work - I have a training session, "Foundations of Communication," in an hour for the library (I'm taking it, not giving it).

In college, I regularly got by with only 5 or 6 hours of sleep, and I'm amazed by it. I pulled the occasional all-nighter, once even driving the 2.5 hours home from school after not sleeping. But the past few years, anything less than 7 or 8 leaves me foggy. I can't find the words as well or make the connections that I want.

Hopefully by tomorrow I'll be back on target. Restless, restless mind.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"The years teach much which the days never knew."

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The New York Times had an opinion piece the other day entitled, "Teenage Fads, Forever Young." Four adult women, each some kind of specialist in teenage behavior speculated about today's adolescents. Each woman wrote about her own experience as a teenager, the fads that were followed and spread. Each seemed bemused by high schoolers today, with their texting and frequent hugging. 

One concluded, 
Just as many parents in the past never really knew what teenagers talked about holed up in their rooms or in the food courts or parking lots, the conversations and content shared among teens and tweens online remain a mystery to many of today’s parents — with the exception of that rare teen who has no secrets from mom or dad and is happy to friend them on Facebook.

This amused me. I know teenagers keep secrets from their parents, and they talk to their friends differently than they talk to their parents, but none of the women touched on this trend: millenials, gen-yers, and people like me, at the tale end of gen x, are friends with our parents. We're not just friends in the Facebook sense of the word; rather, we genuinely enjoy each other's company. 

But what struck me most about this piece (or, I should say, what bothered me most) is that four adult women were writing about the teenage experience. They were generalizing. They were treating teenagers like specimens. I guess in some ways I do the same thing, write about something to understand it better, but the fact that they had four separate adult voices and not one teenage voice speaking for himself or herself, is troublesome. And judging by the comments that followed the article, it wasn't just troublesome for me. 

It's so easy to tear things apart. Find the flaws. Criticize. 

Maybe tomorrow I'll put things together and compliment. Tomorrow is Friday, after all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Morning's are so much better. Whatever anxieties I had the night before, or whatever caused me fits of insomnia, disappear (or, at least, lessen) in the morning when the sun is out, the birds are chirping, and I have a chance to do things a little bit better.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Whose Woods These Are

It's strange how it sneaks up on you: feelings, emotions, bubble up to the surface. Obviously they were right there, hiding, waiting for provocation, but you had no idea. And while it's somewhat cathartic, releasing them, you're unsure of what to do with them now. Put them on a shelf? Tuck them away somewhere?  Find someone to talk to? Or should you do what I do, and write about them?

My dad is getting ready to come home. As he ties up loose ends in Kenya, he reflects on what he's learned these past three years that he's been living in both places:
One thing I learned is that there are degrees of poverty. When you feel you’ve met some truly poor people, there are those who are poorer. I thought initially that the children with AIDS in the Children’s Home in Karen were the poorest of the poor, Then I went to the Village in Kitui and thought these children who were brought from nothing were worse off. I spent time in Kibera and saw the mud and muck and wondered how people could live like this. Then I met the Masai in Athi, with their houses made of cow dung, their hygiene deplorable and water undrinkable, Then I traveled to the north – to Turkana, where people are naked and starving silently and no one knows or seems to care. There are places I have never seen in Kenya, places in other countries like Sudan and Somalia where there is no doubt more sickness, and more violence and paralyzing fear.

This idea is almost too big: that even when searching for the poorest of the poor, you'll always find someone poorer; that whatever your problems, there's always going to be someone with bigger ones.  He concludes by saying that "even in these places of pain and fear, there is somehow life and there is love.... [L]ife is about the relationships."

Today has been altogether surreal.  The California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, and I feel like we're on the wrong side of history with this decision. For so many of us, the idea that a marriage between two men or two women would be treated any differently than a marriage between a man and a woman seems absurd: It makes no sense, and it's as backward as segregation and bans on interracial marriage.

So these bubbling emotions: they come from recognizing myself in my father; they come from acknowledging my own pettiness and selfishness; they come from admitting all the choices available to me and the choices not pursued; and they come from my grandma, able to see through me for who I am and who I am not.

Anyway, so this is me, trying to put names and reasons to my sudden crying fit. It's passed now, and I'm ready to move on to whatever's next. And tonight, that would be sleep.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two pabloritas

Humans are ridiculously awkward creatures. Their features, their movements, their communication - all incredibly imperfect and awkward. I wonder how much more precise we are, with our synonyms and tenses and our compound nouns, than the animals are with their barks and roars.

Then again, right now, I'm using our words, our onomatopoeia, to define their language.

I say that I look for the "best" words to express a "truth," but that's probably a lie. More likely, I look for the easiest words for any given situation.

Happy birthday, Anne!
Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"I try to leave out the parts people skip"

~ Elmore Leonard

I went this afternoon to Taste of Cincinnati downtown. While Taste is an annual tradition here in Cincy, today was my first time going. Forty or so restaurants set up booths up and down fifth street and sell small portions of their menu at a cheap price. This way, theoretically, I can sample all of what Cincinnati restaurants have to offer. 

I had a pulled-pork sandwich from Montgomery Inn as well as a couple of small samples from Graeter's Ice Cream (they're letting taste testers help decide whether or not to remove the green food coloring from their mint chocolate chip!) I wish I had a bigger stomach, because there were many more things that looked appetizing, from chicken curry dishes to shish kebabs.

There were three separate stages with music, but it seemed like whenever we went near one, the musicians were still in the tune-up stage. Before we left - sitting, baking in the sun - we hung around Fountain Square by the middle stage. A quite skilled cover band was playing songs from the 80s and 90s (and maybe a couple more recent ones). 

One of the most important things the fiction writer has to do is "get them out the door": move characters from point A to point B. The writer might have great descriptions and a great way with language, but if he or she can't get them out the door, then it's probably for naught. Anyway, that's where I might be failing: I'm hanging out in the living room and the hallway - I haven't even gone near the door. I don't know if it's locked, and I don't know what's on the other side. 

Anyway, I'm home now from Taste of Cincinnati, slightly burnt but content. Anxious about all the work and grading I have to do tomorrow. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

"This Is My Now,” “The Time of My Life,” “Do I Make You Proud” , “A Moment Like This.”

The "American Idol" winning song is a horrific, treacly number called, "No Boundaries" (not to be confused with prior winning titles such as "This Is My Now"). Lucky for me, I'm partial to horrific, treacly numbers, especially when sung by American Idol contestants.  

It's easy to make fun of American Idol. In fact, it's the kind of thing that I typically would make fun of. But I love it, and I love being part of this national conversation, however superficial. 

Knowing a bit about sports, politics, and pop culture - I have a ready reference for any awkward situation; some kind of common ground. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Like Peas and Carrots

Last week was my little brother's 27th birthday - my little brother!  he's been taller than I since 1993! - and we went to my mom's house for dinner and dessert. My brothers and I are quiet in different ways, especially to each other; despite our closeness in age, we've always had different circles of friends, gone to different schools, and seemingly had few things in common. It's only recently that I've noticed how alike we really are.

In high school, I had my couple of friends; my brothers had... lots; I've had college and grad school while they've had work; I've visited friends in Scotland and Chicago while they've traveled all around the states (to many more places than I've been) with their now-defunct band. Our education and experiences are vastly different. 

But these past few years -- each of us having gotten far beyond that adolescent embarrassment of anything "family" and having mellowed a lot -- I realize and appreciate just how similar we are. We're sensitive in the same ways, affected by slights. We're "funny" in the same ways, with a dry humor that not everyone appreciates. We worry and are protective in the same ways, both about our father and each other.

We're each both quiet and loud. The quietness is more obvious; the loudness is through our creations - mine is writing; Zach's is through music; Jonah's through any number of outlets, whether cartoons, songs, or podcasts. 

I shouldn't be as surprised as I am. We each experienced our parents' separation, our mom's remarriage, joint custody, my accident, and our dad's travels. I see my mom and my dad in each of us; this provides me a great deal of comfort. 

* * *

"It snowed last year too:  I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."  
~Dylan Thomas

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How Public, Like a Frog

I'm lucky enough to know many adults who changed career paths in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. The students I teach, coworkers at the library, friends of parents, my father: their journeys were not a straight trajectory out of high school or college. I say that I'm "lucky" to have witnessed these because I know with certainty that I don't have to have everything figured out right now; I know beyond a doubt that it's ok what I'm doing now. 

But I don't see myself doing this five years from now, at least not in its current form.  I twittered yesterday, "It's selfish 2want 2 sit around thinking of my own things to write instead of sitting around thinking of ways to teach others how to write" (I originally wanted to ask, "Is it selfish..." but was limited by space!) I soon went to bed, deciding to get up early this morning and finish that planning. I'd received a reply to my statement: "Sometimes we have to refill ourselves before we can help others. Be selfish!"

Each person has his own ways, both large and small, of sabotaging himself. Me, I procrastinate. I let things go. I make things harder than they need to be. And I've done this ever since I was small, usually in the context of not being challenged enough.  

Interesting. I'll have to see where this leads.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dishonour descended

Language has the power to connect, to reveal truths, but it also can disguise or obfuscate (I love that word) the truth. That is, those who have power can control language and thus create their own reality. I wrote a little about it last month. This entry at Daily Kos, The Joke's on Us, explains how "waterboarding" entered into our vernacular just five years ago and why it should be called its more appropriate name, "water torture." 

The writer begins by describing how certain professions, "so challenging, so emotionally stressful," require "a culture of biting black humor" to get through each day
Fire fighters who talk about "crispy critters" don't do it because they fail to understand that the remains found in a smoldering house are someone's friends, someone's family. They do it exactly because they know these pitiful remains are all that's left of living, breathing people, and if they don't distance themselves emotionally from what they're seeing, they won't be able to do their jobs. If they don't place a box around what they're experiencing today, they won't be able to work tomorrow -- and tomorrow they just might save someone who can still be saved. Part of that box is language that seems cruel or dismissive to a casual observer.
The writer explains that "waterboarding" was a term created by torturers who needed to create a new name for an old technique. "Waterboarding" was darkly humorous because it likened the activity to surf boarding. It was an inside joke to people who knew and witnessed the horrible reality of torture.  But now, the media have adopted this term and its entered popular culture:

Rather than using the term "water torture," they're indulging in the dark humor of the people who watched men's eyes go wide before the sopping towel was pressed against the face. For that there's no reason, no reason at all. Because when it comes to matters like torture, the last thing the public needs is a media that's trying to insert itself between Americans and the ugliness of our government's actions. Giving us that kind of emotional out isn't going to protect us, it just makes it easier for us to repeat this horrible era.

Saying "waterboarding" trivializes what we've done. It's not a neutral term, it s dismissive term, created with the purpose of snickering at pain.

The term is "water torture."

I've written this quote before, from J.M. Coetzee's "Diary of a Bad Year": "Dishonour descends upon one's shoulders, and once it has descended, no amount of clever pleading will dispel it." President Obama may wish to sweep the Bush administration's torture program under the rug (this shameful, dishonorable age), and focus on the many daunting tasks at hand, but I don't know that it's possible. Everyone's complicit - democrats, republicans alike. They let it happen. We elected them (and re-elected them), and they represent us: so we're complicit too. 

Is that why we say "waterboarding"? Not that we're being dismissive of the reality, "snickering at the pain," but that we too tortured?

It's Sunday, so I'm headed to my grandmothers, laundry and vanilla bean in tow. We'll wait for a call from my dad, who's just returned from war-torn Uganda to corrupt Nairobi. My brothers and I joked about being able to insert "war-torn" in front of anywhere he goes. We're allowed to joke that way because we're on the inside: the fear is ours.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The trees for the forest

There are so many little things - details, chores, meals, tasks, meetings, misunderstandings, clutter, egos, and so forth - that I fear losing sight of the big picture: the whole forest for the trees dilemma. I decide, then, to ignore the little things - chores, meals, clutter, egos - and focus instead on that Big Picture (at least as I see it), making sure that I treat family, friends, and coworkers well; making sure that I live my life with integrity, that I'm the person I want to be. 

One of the ways I got over my shyness, so crippling in grade school and high school, was to think about that Big Picture: "No, people aren't going to make fun of you for talking; no one is examining your every word." I'm still quiet and shy, but those traits no longer define me. I think about That. I think about my place - all of our places - in the larger society, and what our responsibilities are to that society and each other. 

But for the most part, my Big Picture thinking doesn't get me very far. My dishes still aren't done, three of my ceiling lights are still burnt out, and I haven't picked up the Vanilla Bean that my sweet Nana has asked for week after week. I'm also the sum of the Little Things, many of which are broken.

Ugh - and I, I, I. I'm nobody! Who are you?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The hours between class and dinner

I've had Emily Dickinson on my mind. Her poems, so breathless and brief, sometimes visit me in  short bursts. 

Out of nowhere, I hear, I'm nobody! Who are you?  I try to picture her audience: Who is "you"? 

I hear, Wild nights! Wild nights!/ Were I with thee, and feel strangely comforted by that fact such words were written while Dickinson secluded herself in the family's Massachusetts home. 

Earlier today, as I visited a poetry site, I found a link to an article by a former professor - actually, my advisor - from college: Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief. The piece examines two poems, one by the wonderful Whitman--When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd--and the other by Dickinson--Because I Could Not Stop for Death--to argue that the American elegy is signficantly different from the English elegy. Compare these stanzas from Whitman and Dickinson to Englishman Thomas Gray's, Elegy Written in a Country Courtyeard:

Come lovely and soothing death, 
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, 
In the day, in the night, to all, to each, 
Sooner or later delicate death.

(From "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd")

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me— 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.
(From "Because I Could Not Stop for Death")

* * *

The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

(From "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard)

Contrast the hopefulness of the American elegies to the mournfulness of the English one (Baker's words, not mine).  

Speaking of mournfulness, I should go wash dishes.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Director's cut

I love stories for many reasons. Stories of our own lives and stories of others' lives connect us to one another through their many intersections and diversions. We use our own stories to reflect and make sense of what has happened and its significance. These stories can be ones of regret, of joy and happiness, and of loss, but they're always part of something larger. They give us narrative control over our lives up to the present.

I love stories of yesterday: I surprised my mom with flowers while she tended to my headache; then I drove to Nana's where she fixed me breakfast (I feel spoiled!) and I carried a big bag of mulch from her car. We cheered on the Reds - twice Nana said, wrongly, "They won't come back" - unfortunately, the third time she was right. 

And I love stories of the day before: I went to the Reds game with great friends in a great crowd. We cheered them to victory. Later, when we met up with more people at a local watering hole, I had surprising feelings of community and civic pride. 

I know what to do with stories from yesterday and the day before. I know how to sort them and put them in a larger picture. But today? Tomorrow? These throw me. I'm anxious about these days and their narrative course. 

My old manager used to say, as I interviewed again and again for a position with more hours and benefits, that I was doing fine in my interviews: just keep doing what I've been doing, and one of these positions will pan out. He was right - eventually I got the job I'd been trying for. 

And so that's what I thought I was doing, now. I've been happy. I've been content. I've basically been the person I want to be. I thought that, if I keep doing what I've been doing, things will work out: Life, careers, love, etc. But I don't think I can be complacent. I don't want to just have a tenuous hold on some construct of happiness. I want something more tangible.

I realized that some of my past stories are still playing out, and it's thrown me. I'm thrown. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

In the news

David Brooks had a piece in today's New York Times that struck me as timely, since I just wrote about Ruby Payne a couple of days ago. In "The Harlem Miracle," Brooks describes a charter school whose test scores have increased far more than the standard deviations typically seen in education reform. A Harvard economist and his team
found that the Harlem Children’s Zone schools produced “enormous” gains. The typical student entered the charter middle school, Promise Academy, in sixth grade and scored in the 39th percentile among New York City students in math. By the eighth grade, the typical student in the school was in the 74th percentile. The typical student entered the school scoring in the 39th percentile in English Language Arts (verbal ability). By eighth grade, the typical student was in the 53rd percentile.
The school succeeds, Brooks says, because it is a "no excuse school":
The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.

The article has many valid points, but the one reason I become skeptical is because here in Cincinnati we had a "very successful" charter school. Test scores improved wildly, and school days were far longer than the typical school day. In the years since the school received its accolades, the founder of the school is now in jail for embezzlement and records tampering.  I always fear that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"If you could..."

I was thinking about this incredibly passive phrasing.
  • "If you could finish this, that would be great." 
  • "If you could move your car, I'd appreciate it." 
  • "If you could email me the schedule, that would be great." 
  • "If you could..." 
I use this phrasing all the time, both in real conversation and in email, to family, friends, colleagues, and students. Hypothetical situation: A student in my smaller class keeps her backpack on the table. I don't know that she's quietly texting behind it, but it's a possibility. When I rehearse what I would say, hypothetically, to this student, it always comes out, "If you could move your backpack to the floor, that would be great." 

Working with little kids, I was able to be much more direct. I would say, "Backpacks go on the floor. Thank you." (Or  maybe I'd compliment Junior on his right, and say, "Junior! I love how you have your backpack on the floor. I bet that gives you so much more room to make your art project!") 

Is it a Girl thing? To constantly and subconsciously soften statements? To raise our voices at the end of a declarative or imparative sentence? To be indirect? Or maybe it's just a Me thing.

Those quirky cues

I've been thinking about cues.

I first read Ruby Payne's "Framework for Understanding Poverty" years ago for an education class. The slim book argues that each economic station -- poverty, middle class, and upper class -- has its own set of rules and hidden social cues. Children born into poverty, the middle class, and into affluence, grow up knowing the particular rules of that station, and in order to move from one station to the next (e.g. poverty to middle class) children must be taught, explicitly, the rules of the "next" station: how to behave in certain situations, how to get certain resources, etc. 

I think of "Gilmore Girls," with Lorelei breaking all the rules, separating herself from her affluent parents and upbringing and deciding, instead, to raise her daughter according to middle-class values. According to Payne, while the affluent (read, more, "old money") value the past and the middle class focus on the future (planning for, saving for), those in generational poverty value the present: the present is the only thing they can count on because the future is uncertain.

The book is fascinating. It's just a framework, and so while I might not agree with everything she says, it's meant only to be a way of looking at things. Any teacher who works in a poor district should read it: he or she must teach certain social cues -- standing in line, being quiet, how to handle books -- instead of berating children for lacking the "knowledge" that middle-class children have been taught since birth. (I put "knowledge" in quotes, there, because I don't like what I connote there; I hate not finding the appropriate words!)

It's Payne's argument that the toughest part about moving out of poverty and decidedly into "middle class" is not the accumulation of wealth. It's not about earning $50,000/yr instead of $10,000/yr; rather it's obtaining the knowledge of those social cues. I think of my own upbringing. We didn't have a lot of money: my mom stayed home with me and my brothers, while my dad worked in education. Our house was small, on a super-busy street, and waterbugs were frequently seen. My clothes were hand-me-downs. But both my parents were college-educated. We went to the library and were read to every night. We watched television, but only PBS shows, on occasion. It was only later, when my parents split and each worked fulltime, that we started getting more "stuff" and, financially, entered the middle class. But my brothers and I were taught those social cues from day one, independent of our financial situation.

Actually, what got me thinking about Payne's book was an old post by Judith Warner on the New York Times website, "My Kind of Normal." She writes about her own "weirdness" -- demonstrated most recently by her failure to call a plummer about a dripping faucet (despite months of dripping and water waste) -- and how she's passing that weirdness onto her daughter. Her eleven-year-old daughter won't wear Uggs and doesn't like Zac Ephron: how weird and abnormal, Warner writes. 

Warner discusses -- in this post and others -- her own tendency to overanalyze and overthink, and her own hypersensitivity. The comment section is full of people identifying with (and criticizing) her. I identify with her too, to an extent, and now that I've learned more of the social cues (due in no small part to my schooling, post high school, and the internet, that great equalizer), I can better appreciate my (or so I perceived at the time) outsider status during junior and senior high.

Is it wrong to hope that this economic downturn results in a shift in fortunes?  On the local news, which has a decidedly middle-class point of view, I saw a story the other day about families who, for the first time in their lives, have had to seek assistance, going to food banks, thrift stores, etc. They've had to access those same resources with which those in poverty are already familiar.  More are famliar, now, with what it's like to be underwater, unable to save, plan for the future.  Maybe this will bring about greater understanding among more people.

Outside, my grass is about 10 inches tall. I have the option of mowing, taking care of some things around the yard, for a $25 reduction in my monthly rent. But I rent because the last thing I want to do is worry about things like mowing the lawn. I have enough trouble putting my clothes away each Sunday after doing the laundry. The yard looks extremely unkempt, and I wonder what the neighbors think; I should contact my landlord, but... I don't. 

Just like my bathrooom light that's been out for about a month (my little step stool isn't tall enough for me to safely change the lightbulb), I don't care enough about it to do anything.  Is that weird?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"Isn't it wonderful to be alive and watching baseball?"

- Nana, today

I just finished reading my 33 student diagnostic essays. I ask them to describe themselves as writers: did they have positive or negative writing experiences, and how do they hope to improve as writers. I don't grade these pieces; rather, they serve as a baseline for the students, and give me an idea of what they each want or expect out of the class. 

At this early stage (going into week 2), there is so much I want to tackle. But I remind myself that I have my syllabus; I have the twelve weeks planned out, from the readings to the vocabulary to the due dates of essays. It's just a bit overwhelming when I start to consider the 33 students as individuals with their own needs and expectations. I shrink just a little bit.

I spent today (like every Sunday) at my grandma's. I did my laundry, and we watched Cueto dismantle the Pirates. She said, "Isn't it wonderful to be alive and watching baseball?" She reminds me to simplify.