Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Intercalary Chapters

In September 2008, as I drove the familiar interstate to school, the StoryCorps segment came on NPR. Through StoryCorps, two "regular people" record a conversation between themselves and submit it to be preserved at the Library of Congress. The conversation might be between siblings, between old friends, between spouses, or, as was the case of the conversation that aired September 11, 2008, between mother and son.

It's been over two years since I heard it, but I still remember Frankie's soft and quivering voice as he answered his mom's gentle questions about his grandfather (her father) and the special memories he had of him. His mom asked him what he recalled about September 11th - and even though he was a young boy at the time, Frankie could describe every detail from that day: learning about the Twin Towers being struck, being so worried about his grandfather who had been working there that day, and finding out that his grandfather had died along with so many others.

My own experience of hearing their story suddenly came back to me this afternoon I drove home from my grandmother's on that same, familiar interstate and listened to another NPR segment: "The Story." Journalist Dick Gordon interviews "regular people" and helps them tell their story. Today, a young woman from the Philippines described how she had come to the United States thinking that she had a $50/month job as a housekeeper. But Mimin's passport was taken by her employers; she was not paid; she was not permitted to leave the house. Because she spoke very poor English and had only an elementary-school education, she did not realize she had other rights. Her employers convinced her that if she left the house, she would be raped or worse - she didn't know any better. Mimin worked under these circumstances for seven years and finally escaped with the help of an anti-trafficking group. It's been five years since she left that situation, but she still lives in fear that her former employers will find her and take her back.

The CIA estimates that 50,000 people are brought to the United States each year and forced to work as prostitutes, domestics, or laborers. These people are invisible to us. Mimin escaped only through a chance meeting with a man who bicycled by her house each day, noticed her poor condition, and eventually slipped her a phone number. It serves as a reminder to listen extra hard for the voiceless and look even harder for the invisible.

September 2008, I arrived at class with red eyes. I described the story I had listened to on NPR, Frankie, his mom, and his grandfather -- "What's NPR?" a couple students interrupted! -- and then asked them to write their own 9/11 story: where had they been? what do they remember most? what, if anything, changed for them that day?

* * *

Sometimes that down cycle can be self-perpetuating. You feel bad, and then you feel bad about feeling bad. And then you feel guilty about that because things could always be worse. So perhaps it's best to actively avoid those natural inclinations toward inwardness. Just plow through and face outward. Involve yourself in other stories while your own narrative takes a short break. Maintain empathy and keep things in perspective.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Underwater Breathing

More than once, my mom, having noticed some weird look in my eyes or just using her mom-ESP, has looked at me and asked, “What’s the matter?” And I’ve responded by bursting into tears. Unable to articulate why I’m upset or sad, I repeat, “I’m fine – really,” while the water-works suggest otherwise.

So it’s been lately, and so it is that I’m writing about it. While I’m fine – really – I’ve felt underwater for reasons both within and outside of my control. I’m not sure how to make it better. But my mom’s been in Mexico the past week, my dad’s been in Kenya for the past month, and my grandma’s been through the wringer the past twenty-one days; maybe I can allow myself to feel sad & scared & overwhelmed for a little bit and not analyze it to death. Instead, focus on what is within my control and the many positives in my life.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Yesterday, I went straight from class over to my grandma's. She'd returned after an out-patient procedure that "found nothing." Right now, this 88-year old is home-bound, reliant on others to pick up her library books and go to the grocery store. She doesn't complain, but I know she hates losing a bit of her independence (hopefully just temporarily, as she regains strength).

Medicare is paying for everything: from her trip to the ER to her week-long stay at the hospital, to another week at a nursing home as she regained strength, and to daily home visits from a nurse and, today, a social worker. She wouldn't have been able to cover all these expenses on her own, nor would my father and I have been much help. I've been thinking about this as the health care debate came to a head and then a vote.

Anyway. Korean food, beer fest tonight. Less than three more weeks in the quarter, and I'm looking forward to being caught up for three or four days.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Woman of Inaction

I'm slow. I'm methodical. I think about something, and then I think about it some more. Then I reflect on what I've thought. My pace is frustratingly deliberate (or, maybe, deliberately frustrating), but I look back on choices I've made and have no regrets; I wouldn't change a thing.

I've always had this anxiety about teaching. How I communicate doesn't translate well to the podium. How others learn rarely reflects how I learn. A friend of mine who recently found herself leading a classroom full of adults said to me, "I think I like the idea of being a teacher more than actually being a teacher," and I can certainly understand that sentiment. In the mean time, I do the best I can; in my evaluations, I want my students to write either "She tried really hard!" or "She's funny." (It doesn't necessarily come across in my oh-so serious writing, but I can be hilarious. Or, at least, droll).

That July deadline I'd set for myself is suddenly flexible. I owe a lot of taxes; I have a huge phone bill this month (cell phones are so convenient that you forget you're talking to someone in East Africa!). It's one thing to try to follow my bliss, it's another to be responsible during a near-recession.

I should mention that because of downsizing at the airport, my brother Zach took a severance package last month. In April, he flies to California and will bike across the States. Read about it here. Jonah had chosen to stay on; but Delta announced it was closing one of its concourses: his last day will be here shortly.

Anyway, so I continue to deliberate. Reflect. Ponder. I should really start running again; things always clarify themselves when I run. Oh well, I'll think about it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Silly Season

One of my favorite Obama phrases is "silly season." Dating back to December 2007, when Obama was fighting Clinton for the nomination, he would deflect those ridiculous questions from reporters and attacks from opponents with something like, "Come on now, guys. That's silly season. Let's get back to the important stuff."

David Frum, a conservative speech writer for George H.W. Bush, called the passage of health care reform the Republicans' Waterloo. He argued that because, last summer, the opposition allowed extreme voices and opinions to dominate (death panels! socialism!) and influence public opinion, Republicans left themselves in a position with no leverage and no room to negotiate. Frum wrote
There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?
Tonight, as this landmark legislation moves just inches from the goal line, we see a president who looks serious and republican lawmakers still engaged in silly season. Watching C-Span, I listened to one Democrat after another celebrating the expanded coverage, rejoicing the new controls over insurance companies, while one Republican after the next bemoaned the government takeover of health insurance and the loss of our freedom. I wondered, "How could they possibly be talking about the same bill?" What the Republicans in the House and Senate neglect, though, is that the Democrats were elected to majorities in the House and Senate, and to the White House in a modern-day landslide. This is why we elected them. To enact reform, to be a voice for the voiceless. If we wanted Republican ideas and policies, we'd be deferring to Speaker of the House, John Boener, and leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell. We'd be saluting president John McCain. As George W. Bush would say, elections have consequences.

The G.O.P. right now looks unserious. Without negotiating in good faith, they remove themselves from the conversation and thus cannot influence policy. While Republicans are moaning and groaning about a government takeover of healthcare, the Democrats are expanding healthcare coverage to 32 million more Americans.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Shock and Awe

I've been awake since 3am, which isn't as bad as it sounds, since I went to bed before 9 last night.

Today is the seven-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It seems like longer; it seems like we've been there forever. I have students who are 18, 19, and this is all they know - an America at war. I remember going with my mom down to Union Terminal, where Bush gave his his speech where he said that "confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror."

My mom and I, of course, weren't inside listening to his speech; we were outside with the hippies, the nuns, and the students, protesting.

It's heartbreaking to read both the text of his speech as well as the New York Times article that appeared the next day:
Building his case, the president charged for the first time that Iraq's fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles was ultimately intended to deliver chemical and biological weapons to cities in the United States. The president also built a lengthy, if circumstantial, case that Mr. Hussein had extensive ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and that Iraq trained members of the terrorist group in "bomb-making, poisons and deadly gases." Although other members of his administration had cited evidence tying Al Qaeda to Iraq, Mr. Bush spoke about this in detail for the first time tonight.
You wonder how we got to that point. Volumes have been written about extensive failures by the media and their complicity in allowing this to happen. When a president says Saddam Hussein has ties to Al Qaeda, you believe him. When the Secretary of State says that Iraq has sought to purchase uranium from Niger, you believe him. We want to believe that those in power are telling the truth, regardless of whether we agree with their particular politics. But how are they not war criminals? They lied and manipulated and withheld truth in order to get us to invade this country: regardless of their motives, their actions were criminal.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Linguistic Change Doesn't Equal Linguistic Decay (Necessarily)

I've started reading a fascinating book, The Lexicographer's Dilemma, with the catchy subtitle, The Evolution of 'Proper English,' from Shakespeare to South Park. Click here for an excerpt, though I encourage lovers of the English language to buy your own copy or, better yet, borrow one from the library.

The writer, Jack Lynch, poses the question: How is it "wrong" if everyone speaks that way? Going back centuries, every generation has bemoaned the degradation of the English language. Kids these days, they don't know how to talk or write. But language necessarily evolves; the rules, he suggests, are less important than usage. We can't capture and crystallize the English language and say that this is the only way to speak it correctly. Technology changes, and the way we communicate changes; thus, focusing on what is "correct" puts undue anxiety on speakers and writers alike. Bad grammar, he says, can result in good writing, just as good grammar can result in bad writing.

As an English teacher, I read this book with great interest. I recognize the arbitrariness of the rules, the way language is used to impose and enforce a power structure. But I also recognize the power of language as a means of communication. I see the need for clarity and unambiguity in certain contexts. I see the importance of learning how to writing and speak "Standard English" because of the way our society works. Again, it's a fascinating book.


Nana is doing much better. She's still in the hospital but much closer to her old self. I've spent most days this week with her, and I'm lucky that my jobs afford me the flexibility to do that. I'll share a quote from my brother's godfather that my dad quoted on his own blog:

Loss, and the grief that comes from it, is one of the greatest occasions of deep and sad feeling, and it’s one that is socially acceptable. When we lose a beloved friend, wife, husband, child, parent, or maybe a possession or a job, we feel it’s okay to feel deeply. But we must broaden that. We’ve got to find a passion that is also experienced when we have it, not just when we’re losing it. And we have it all the time. Don’t wait for loss to feel, suffer, or enjoy deeply.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Very, Very Quick hits

  • I tied for second in the Oscar pool Sunday. Should've gone with the tide and picked Sandra Bullock!
  • I went to bed at 8:30 last night and woke at 5am. More sleep than I've gotten in ages.
  • My lovely nana is in the hospital with pancreatitis (the kind caused by gull stones, not excessive alcohol); she's in good spirits.
Zach, Nana, and Jonah a couple of Thanksgivings ago. My brothers have very nice smiles, but here they are making their "ugh my sister is making us pose" faces :)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Catching Up

Ah, so this MFA thing.

Every day, it's catch up. I finish grading one batch of papers and then receive another. I come up with an awesome idea for a class activity, only to find myself working at the library, unable to find time to write the necessary plans. I make time for friends and realize I've neglected family, or vice versa. I catch up, but I don't get ahead.

Granted, I'm easily impressed. But I'm in awe of people who manage to keep their apartment and car clean, their papers organized, and their lives in some semblance of order. While a part of me wonders where they find the time, the other part of me realizes that this order is a result of choices: to hang up a coat when returning to the apartment; to wash the dishes as soon as they're used; to prioritize.

There are some things I've figured out. These things mostly pertain to basic human interactions, choosing kindness and optimism over all else. But the rest? Eek! I keep drawing the same conclusions again and again but never make the necessary hard choices. Thus I am constantly catching up, catching up, catching up.

So while I'd love to think about the MFA, draft an admissions essay, gather samples, I don't have the time and space for it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Last Week's Five After Five

I hung out in a grocery store again last Friday.

Station One
  • Wine - Humber Gruner Veltliner
This white wine was quite tasty. It was sweet yet complex.
  • Food - "My Dad's Garlic Bread"
The garlic bread was fine, but what was truly delicious was the sauce they gave us to dip the bread in. Ha - it was probably Ragu (but organic!)

Station Two
  • Wine - Edna Valley Chardonnay
This wine had an oaky aftertaste. None of us liked it very much...
  • Food - skipped it
Station Three
  • Wine - Altos Malbec
Malbec is probably my favorite red wine. It's not too sweet but still goes down smooth. (I really should take a wine-tasting class so I can learn the appropriate adjectives:)
  • Food - Spinach Feta Orzo
I can't remember if I ate this or not...

Station Four
  • Wine - Paso A Paso Tempranillo
I remember really liking this red wine. The guy who poured here came across as an extra from "Dazed and Confused."
  • Food - Seafood Gumbo
It tasted good, but I think I would have liked it better with chicken or beef. The seafood taste overwhelmed some of the other flavors in the gumbo.

Station Five
  • Wine - Layercake Primotivo
Layercake makes great wine, and the Primotivo was no exception. It went great with the fondue...

  • Food - Swiss Cheese Fondue
What was supposed to be warm and smooth was room temperature and sticky, but it was still delish.

After Whole Foods we went to Cactus Pear in Clifton. I regretfully ordered a cheeseburger and drank water, while most of my friends--there were twelve of us!--split three pitchers of margaritas.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Man Is Lucky Indeed...

I forget about the power of language sometimes (inexcusable given my profession, I know) but a recent article by Chris Jones in Esquire Magazine reminded me. Fellow blogger George Rede summarizes and quotes the article that profiles film critic Roger Ebert. I won't do that again, here, except to point out my favorite part that describes how writing provides him the voice that he physically lacks:

Reading [Ebert's online journal] from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it's just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart's wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They're followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert's strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he'd rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost — more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn't exist had he kept his other voice.

Ebert writes, "When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be." The story strikes me because of the voice and world writing has opened up for Roger Ebert. But equally, I'm struck by the beautiful portrait Chris Jones has drawn. It is everything that the Vanity Fair piece wasn't; sensitive and nuanced, Jones allows his readers to think of Ebert and themselves in a new light.

At the beginning of each quarter, as I introduce some of the basics of writing, we talk about paragraphs. I contend that being able to write a strong, effective paragraph is more important, practically speaking, than being able to write a decent essay. Outside of school, few of us need to write these longer pieces of work--one-thousand words comparing this and that, twelve-hundred words persuading an imagined audience to alter its opinion on the death penalty--but most of us will have reason to craft shorter, to-the-point groups of sentences. Whether writing a cover letter, a memo, or an email to a child's teacher, students need to be able to effectively and concisely communicate information.

"A paragraph," I say, "is a sentence or group of sentences that forms an idea." We look at two examples of "strong paragraphs": the first, the opening paragraph to a Judith Ortiz Short story, demonstrates how a writer can use simple but powerful sentences to great effect; the second, from an E. B. White essay, shows how even a paragraph smack dab in the middle of a larger piece can stand on its own:

I guess I have watched my coon descend the tree a hundred times; even so, I never miss a performance if I can help it. It has a ritualistic quality, and I know every motion, as a ballet enthusiast knows every motion of his favorite dance. The secret of its enchantment is the way it employs the failing light, so that when the descent begins, the former is clearly visible and is a part of day, and when, ten or fifteen minutes later, the descent is complete and the coon removes the last paw from the tree and takes the first step away, groundborne, she is almost indecipherable and is a part of the shadows and the night. The going down of the sun and the going down of the coon are interrelated phenomena; a man is lucky in deed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window. (White, 1977, p. 44)

White turns the ordinary into the magical in just four sentences. And that's the power of words and language - it stirs something in us that's reachable no other way.

White, E. B. (1977). Coon Tree. In Essays of E. B. White (pp. 41-55). New York, NY: HarperCollins Books.