Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Musings

For all the things I discuss ad nauseum here (my family, my class, my lack of cleaning ability, my friends, my hopes and fears, my politics, my love of the Reds and the Bengals, etc) I only allude to my romantic relationships. Principally, this is because my blog is not about that. Here, I aim to sort out my own ideas and feelings by writing about them; it's that Forster quote, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" I wouldn't dare try to sort out my feelings for another person by writing about him in this space.

Ah. But of course, everything connects. Currently unattached, the future remains vague. I wonder, "Will I be alone? Is this for myself only?" I love completely, from family and friends to boyfriends. That doesn't mean I easily express it; it's quiet. I only hope that it doesn't go unnoticed and that I am loved completely, also.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"A messy room is a messy soul." (Part II)

~ Nana

I cleaned today. Two whole rooms. Granted, one was my bathroom that's smaller than a walk-in closet, and I didn't even touch inside the shower. The other room is the one I'm in now, with my computer, my binders and notebooks, my stacks of paper and bills and letters and various statements from the past five-ten years. (Prioritizing = difficult).

Some weeks just fly by while others, like this one, contain days that seem so long they have their own individual story-lines and subplots. I despise the small stuff, that which arises out of ego and insecurity. I hate it! Yet, despite knowing better, I step right in. I succumb. I worry about things I can't control, I don't choose kindness.

And so I clean. Mindless scrubbing, sorting and stacking, and throwing away of a ton of useless stuff. It looks pretty decent for the time being, though I could probably spend another hour cleaning and still have more I could do. It's finally reached the high 80s in Cincinnati, and with the humidity and my lack of air conditioning, I can only spend so long moving around.

(This is a fraction of the books I couldn't fit on my bookshelf; I like piles.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Everything's Better in the Morning

As the evening wears on, my perspective narrows. The big picture--the forest, the days and weeks before--disappear as tiredness takes over. I see myself get angry and frustrated and downright cranky at night.

Six a.m., seven a.m. (far earlier than I wish to wake) I'm energized. I'm excited. New day, new choices, new opportunities to do things better.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Another Great Poem

Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

We read this in composition today. I ask what the speaker's father is like. How did the speaker feel about his father when he was a child? How does he feel now? Then I ask them to think of something (or someone) of whom they think differently now than as a child. How did their previous feelings compare to current ones? What is responsible for the change? We spend about twenty minutes free writing and sharing (some of us) what we wrote. I did a separate one for each section. As always, I'm amazed and humbled by what students share -- both with me in their writing and with each other.

I fault myself for so many deficiencies. I lack, I lack, I lack. But I do create an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing, where--I hope--they don't feel judged.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama's Spill

I gave my lesson on bias today. I referred to the oil spill, and how some in the media have referred to it as "Obama's Katrina," implying that because of the geography as well as the ecological and financial devastation, BP's disaster is equivalent to a hurricane followed by an inept federal response. By framing it this way, the media reduce the story to one of conflict instead of one that is complex and multi-faceted.

Ah, so that's what I said. But I wonder about my own bias. Were Bush in charge, the oil spilled, and the federal response the same as it is today, with Obama, how would I react? Would I spend time investigating BP's donations to the Republican party and Bush, in particular? Would I harp on the fact that a strong push for alternative energy has again been kicked down the road? Would I stomp and pound my fists that it's been over four weeks since the spill, and BP hasn't stopped the flow of oil, and would I claim that administration complaints about BP missing "deadline after deadline" ring empty?

I'm pretty sure that's what would happen.

  • Click here to see a live feed of the gushing oil.
  • The well is leaking at least twice as much oil as previous estimates.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost, Love, and Life

"Lost" premiered in the fall of 2004 just as John Kerry was getting swift-boated and I was getting started with grad school. I instantly loved the show, with its mixture of science fiction, mythology, and deeply-layered characters. In the second season, two of my oldest friends and I started gathering each week to watch and dissect the increasingly convoluted plots.

During the six seasons, the characters have been struggling to survive on this mysterious island where polar bears run amok, where some don't age, and where cancer is cured and paraplegics walk. Oh, and time travel. Can't forget about the time travel.

The sixth and last season has been comprised equally of scenes on the island, following the timeline with which we've become familiar, and of scenes in Los Angeles, ostensibly following a timeline in which the plane never crashed. And throughout, we've been scratching our heads - how are the two timelines going to reconcile? How are the writers going to explain these two realities? Surely, I'd thought, the answer would be found in the mythology and in the strange science of the island.

Last night was the series finale, and five of us gathered to watch (my "oldest" friends with their respective significant others and me, solo). The finale focused less on the mythology--frozen donkey wheels, electromagnetism, and four-toed statues--than on the characters and their respective personal journeys. We learned that this last season--at least the scenes in L.A.--has been a sort of purgatory, a timeless place for characters to reconnect after they have died, regardless of when they have died.

This one will resonate for a while. I thought immediately of the appropriateness of me watching the show that ultimately celebrated love and relationships with people I've known and been friends with for twenty-five years (recall - I'm not yet thirty!) I thought secondly about something my dad wrote almost exactly one year ago as he prepared to leave Kenya yet again:
Life is about more than the stuff. Like we already knew, life is about the relationships. Life is about Mary and Naomi, Rachel, Benerd, Daniel, Chris and Fred, Jonah, Benson, Diane and Gladys, Judy and Zach and Lomori, Joseph 1,2 and 3. It is about Erin, Mickie, Spence, my mom, Mwololo, George, Paul and Pascal, Moses, Moris, Eunice, Mwendwa, Pastor, Kathy, Karen and John and Ngumbu. It is about all the people I know and love and have let just pass by. That is what I learned and what I know and what I live on each day. These relationships are important - like food. I need them to survive and without them, I am not alive.
Every one, every thing, connected.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Last week’s five after five

I don’t always blog about it, but I still spend my Fridays drinking wine at a grocery store. Last week’s was eventful for a couple reasons: first, two in our group missed it for the second week in a row because they had the nerve to go to Europe (thankfully, they’ll be back on Friday); second, my downstairs neighbor came along. He chastised me for not buying any of the wine I sample.

“I never buy wine.”

“Well, what kind do you like?”

“I don’t know, all of it.”

“How long have you been doing the tasting?”

“Uh, about a year.”

I felt a little sheepish. Maybe once I get my apartment clean I’ll have people over and will go back through some of my entries and pick out the best red and white wines that I’ve referred to.

As for last week’s, we started with The Jump Stump White – it was delicious and not too sweet. I also liked the Avanti Pinot Noir.

Anyway, I’m taking a break from grading essays. I only have seven or eight more for tonight. I’ve already marked all the papers; it’s just a matter of filling out the rubric and writing more detailed suggestions for revision.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

And So it Goes, And So It Goes.

I borrowed a stack of books from the library about teaching composition. Many are dated, geared toward that traditional freshman in college who intends to finish in a degree in four years, who does not have a part-time or full-time job, and who just needs the right kind of guidance to produce a stellar piece of writing. Some are oddly defensive about teaching the "rules" and correcting "bad" grammar. But regardless of their faults, I can certainly take something away from each of these texts.

The most useful one, in fact, is geared toward high school students. "The Pen Is in My Hand... Now What?" encourages us to begin with creative writing before switching to expository. In "S.W.A.P." activities, students construct a creative paragraph in which they answer a series of questions. Last week, I showed students a picture of a soldier holding an assault rifle and peering around a corner. I asked,
  1. What is his name?
  2. What is he thinking?
  3. Where is he going?
  4. What is his favorite color?
  5. Why does his left foot itch?
  6. What was he doing before he enlisted?
  7. What is his family like?
Students could respond to these questions in any order, however they liked. Afterwards, students read their creations to the whole class (each had the opportunity to pass). Students were proud of and applauded their classmates, and they encouraged each other. Cool!

I wish I felt as good about everything else I was/am doing. I don't know what it will take for me to feel confident. But I'll take my victories when I can. Friday, the Hemingway short story "Soldier's Home" was met with overwhelming approval; I had first played some audio of an Iraq war veteran talking about his experience with PTSD. The subsequent discussion of the story was complex and nuanced. When we talked about how Hemingway's style--short, simple sentences; lots of repetition; detached--reflected Krebs' state of mind after returning home from WWI, students got it.

My own school plans have not changed, and now isn't the time to be tentative. One of my books, "Rational Irrationality," talks a lot about the theory and pedagogy of composition. The author suggests that adults who struggled to learn to write well make the best teachers; they recognize the challenges and steps to become effective writers and can thus best explain it to students. On the other hand, adults for whom writing has always been easy and natural cannot credibly explain the importance of the writing process. The author suggests that these people approach writing in a very different way and will necessarily have trouble breaking it into steps. I'm not sure that I agree with him, but I think it's an interesting point.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Seizing the Day

My brother, after leaving his job at the airport, shipped his bike to California then flew there to meet it. After peddling down the coast, San Francisco to Los Angeles, he is now somewhere in Arizona, making his way to Austin, Texas. Read about his travails at, where he and a couple others upload pics and write about their adventures. Here's some of Zach's prose:

3 days straight of 90+ miles in the desert sun can start to wear on your body and attitude. We are crashing at our old buddy Anne's. Last night we killed crazy amounts of pasta, broke her sink, and rearranged her kitchen while she was out. Later we all laid around blowing farts and laughing.
All three of them write with this understated humor that I adore. Zach's on the left. He said he's lost 10lbs already on this trip, and they're only about one-third finished!

Monday, May 10, 2010

When You Read Silently

The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently

is not silent, it is a speaking-
out-loud voice in your head; it is *spoken*,
a voice is *saying* it
as you read. It's the writer's words,
of course, in a literary sense
his or her "voice" but the sound
of that voice is the sound of *your* voice.
Not the sound your friends know
or the sound of a tape played back
but your voice
caught in the dark cathedral
of your skull, your voice heard
by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
and what you know by feeling,
having felt. It is your voice
saying, for example, the word "barn"
that the writer wrote
but the "barn" you say
is a barn you know or knew. The voice
in your head, speaking as you read,
never says anything neutrally- some people
hated the barn they knew,
some people love the barn they know
so you hear the word loaded
and a sensory constellation
is lit: horse-gnawed stalls,
hayloft, black heat tape wrapping
a water pipe, a slippery
spilled *chirr* of oats from a split sack,
the bony, filthy haunches of cows...
And "barn" is only a noun- no verb
or subject has entered into the sentence yet!
The voice you hear when you read to yourself
is the clearest voice: you speak it
speaking to you.

This is my new favorite poem. On the first day of class this quarter, we read Lux's poem, and I asked students to reflect on the voice they hear when they read silently; how does it compare to their "out-loud" voice? Students described wishing their speaking voice matched the one in their head, so fluid and confident. The voices in their heads can be male or female, have British or French accents, and can otherwise be animated in ways that their speaking out-loud voice cannot replicate.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"I Knew Sammy"

Friday night, instead of our usual trip to the grocery store, some friends and I saw The Sammy Project at the Aronoff Center. Darrell Grand Moultrie, a Juilliard graduate and a "master teacher," choreographed dances set to the music of Sammy Davis, Jr. I'd had no idea how many of the familiar standards had been sung by him.

But my favorite part of this experience came a few hours ago when I told my grandma about seeing The Sammy Project. Her reaction: "I knew Sammy." She explained, "A girl who was stationed with us wanted me to teach her how to tap dance." My grandmother, unmarried and a WAC in Cheyenne, Wyoming, told the girl that she would teach her what she knew. When they met, the girl had brought Sammy Davis, Jr. also. My grandma was familiar with Sammy, introduced herself, and said she couldn't -- Sammy was too good. Sammy tried to convince her to stay, but my grandma was too embarrassed and left. She told me that Sammy was very nice.

* * *

This is the first time I've been able to just sit at my computer and not feel like I should be grading papers. Two weeks in, I'm not behind yet - I hope to keep it this way! Anyway, the Reds are over .500 (barely) and things are going well. I did my dishes - I'm about to retreat upstairs to put clothes away. Taking care of things I can control.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I Think, Therefore I Is.

I'm trying something new this quarter - I'm withholding explicit grammar instruction until I've collected a couple assignments, including a formal essay. First of all, I think the instruction might end up being unnecessary. If students already have a strong foundation, knowing the difference between the past tense and past perfect tense is not going to make them better writers. Second, I realize how abstract these lessons are when separate from students' own writing. Once I've assessed their writing, then I can determine a baseline and target more specific skills to build. I think this will make for a happier teacher and happier students.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Coin Flips

I spoke briefly with a friend Saturday--an ex, actually--and we marveled at how long the past fifteen or sixteen months have seemed. For every year that seems to fly by, there are periods that are slow and loaded. This is not a bad thing.

For all my jokes about dreading getting older--"Thirty! Noooooooooooooo!"--I really do enjoy it. I'm better at being older than I was at being younger. Young, cripplingly shy, I remained on the periphery. I hadn't realized that everyone felt a bit awkward and weird. Today, still shy but more confident because of life experience, I know we're all wonderfully flawed and special.

We define ourselves and our lives each and every day. What we did last year doesn't define who we are tomorrow; yesterday was a piece and tomorrow is a piece. Imagine flipping a coin. Even if we've flipped ten "heads" in a row, the next flip is still 50/50. And this is why the past year has seemed so long and full: I appreciate the choices I still have in front of me.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Good Problems?

This quarter, I have no ESL students. Nor do I have any students who appear to need significant remedial skills. The students' eyes glossed over as I described the basics of composing an essay, planning, drafting, generating ideas. But they were engaged and interested as they shared their own writing and seemed to enjoy my combination of praise and criticism. Maybe I've underestimated previous classes - I didn't recognize it because the classes were so big. This quarter, with two smaller sections instead of one huge one, maybe I can better match the needs of individual students.

This is a good problem to have. However, my syllabus and lesson plans are written for students who need basic writing skills (not that I haven't had strong writers before - they got the short end of the stick as I focused on getting everyone to the same level). I have to look for new and better ways to challenge this new group.