Saturday, April 30, 2005

Middlebrow's Vacation

Middlebrow has been gone for approximately 24 hours (okay, more) and here's what I've done:
  1. Nursed Son back to health (he was puking for about 10 minutes)
  2. Took Son and Friend to see "Discovering Saturn" at the Planetarium. Thank goodness for the Planetarium. Friend fell asleep and woke up when the rocket blasted off. "I wasn't asleep," he said.
  3. Took Son and Friend to Expensive Grocery Store. They had Fruit Salad. I had Potato Salad and Diet Coke. MMMM.
  4. Had Free Meal at Friend and 2 Biologists house. Pizza and guacamole. Middlebrow should go out of town more often. I socialize more when he's away.
  5. Dropped Son off at 2 Biologists. I graded papers while Son and Friend played.
  6. Went for a run with Mrs. Biologist while Son rollerbladed with Friend.
  7. I just made cherry and chocolate biscotti to take to 2 Biologists house. They are having a dinner party and invited me. Mrs. Biologist is making paella. Super Yum! I also bought a sweet wine and some decaf coffee to accompany said biscotti. It was my first time making biscotti, so I hope no one chokes.

This is my crazy life. Son naps nearby on couch. I used the old "read a book while I check my email" trick. Works every time. He acquires much needed rest for another evening of out-of-control playing with Friend while the adults socialize and drink much-needed wine.

Tomorrow I plan to grade (I think my goal is 5 per day. What lofty goals!) and drink coffee. I think I will let Son watch a vulgar amount of Sunday TV. Luckily his favorite is "This Old House." Maybe when he grows up he'll redo our kitchen. A Mom can dream, can't she?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Reading Meme

Because she said nice things about me on her website (see: Tales of a 9th Grade Tuba Player), I answer burning questions about my reading habits. Don't thank me, thank her.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. What book do you want to be?
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (It's been on my mind. It must be those prostitutes.)

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
In high school, I think I was in love with Holden Caulfield. But I definitely was in love with Ambrose, star of "Lost in The Funhouse. " I think it was all the descriptions of him in the funhouse with that girl. Or something about sweaty legs sticking to the back seat on family car trips.

The last book you bought is?
Duck on a Bike by David Shannon? For Son? Okay, I'll say Letters to Wendy's by Joe Wenderoth for Middlebrow. And The Complete History of New Mexico by Kevin McIlvoy. Both at AWP.

What are you currently reading?
Loving Che, by Ana Menendez. And some Elizabeth George novel. Not at the same time of course (but sort of at the same time, in that I am in the middle of both).
I should say student portfolios, but I haven't started them. Yet.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:
  1. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. Because I haven't read it yet and I'm sure it's great.
  2. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Because I have read it, it is great, and I would love to read it again. And again.
  3. Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. Because I've read it, like, three times. And I would read it again. And then I could read it out loud. And then I could do a dramatic modern dance interpretation of it. And maybe I could become J.W. and magically transform into a "writer."
  4. Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital. (What's with these Jane-/Jean-ettes?) It is amazingly captivating with its lyricism and plot. What I aspire to.
  5. Remembrance of Things Past (the Lydia Davis translation). I'd finally have time!

Three people you hope will answer this meme after you:

  1. Middlebrow. Because I want to know the answers.
  2. Sleepy E. I wonder if The Red Pony would end up anywhere on his list?
  3. HighTouchMegastore. Because I want to know the answers.

The Voice of Reason and Sympathy

Finally! A woman who has some power and seems, well, nice and reasonable (check out this column at The Chronicle). Maybe I made a mistake in being a Humanities person, maybe I should have gone into science. She seems downright sane! I really enjoyed this column because she acknowledges the importance of female role models to women in academia. And I like how she refers to herself as a mammal. It's factual, but it happens so rarely. And she points out that you have to be married to someone supportive. So important! She's basically just right, that's all.

I am now, offically, finished with teaching for the semester. Hooray! Now the hard part: grading. It should be fairly straightforward as I have read most of the materials before. I will now retreat to the Grading Grotto. This definitely calls for a Cabana Boy. If only we had the sunshine to go with it. . .sigh. Summer's just around the corner. Right?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Exhaustion of the College Teacher

I will not wax poetic about the depth and breadth of my pathetic exhaustion that involves making cookies for my Creative Writing class, suffice it to say: we're all bleeping tired. But my little darlings read their manifestos today, and I have to say, I'm impressed. They all complained, but they all wrote brilliant accounts of why they write. Hooray for the Manifesto!

In other news, I handed out a list of recommended reading and viewing to them. On the other side was a list of inspirational quotations that have seen me through the hard times. I give you a selection now:
  • How emblematic are the unexpressed lives of other women to the woman poet. Eavan Boland
  • You have to make the leap alone. Ron Carlson
  • For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them. Thich Nhat Hanh

In compiling quotations for the handout, I remembered a few things I often forget in the mad dash that sometimes passes for my life. I need to remember why I write in the first place. And I need to arrange my life so that, every once in a while, I find myself sitting at the computer with an idea. Mostly I remembered that if I want to finish the novel, I need to get out of the way. Those Buddhists, they really know what they are talking about.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Conversation with a Four-year-old

Today as I was contemplating one of life's big decisions, what shirt to wear today, Son approached.

Son: When I get older, will you die? And will Daddy die?
Me: Yes. But that won't happen for a long time.
Son: But I don't want to die.
Me: You're young. It won't happen for a long, long time.
Son: But Batman won't die.
Me: No. He's a superhero.
Son: I want you to be a superhero so you won't die.
Me: Okay. I'll be Wonder Woman.
Son: No, Hawk Girl.
Me: Okay, I'll be Hawk Girl and you'll be Batman and Dad will be Superman.
Son: Then you won't die.
Me: Right.
Son: Because Dad's father died.
Me: Yes.
Son: How did he die?

And so on. On the way to school we ended up having a long conversation on the evils of smoking. That seemed easier than trying to explain death and consciousness and whatnot to a four-year-old. Isn't four a bit young to be experiencing existential angst? Middlebrow says that's what results from living with two overly self-reflective people. Great. I somehow feel responsible. In Disney movies, when someone dies (it's inevitable, it happens in every movie) I always say, "Oh, he went on vacation" or "she's taking a nap". But we've always told Son what happened to Middlebrow's father. Was that a mistake?
I knew motherhood would be riddled with these moments you can't prepare for, but I didn't think I'd be discussing death with him at age four.
I feel simultaneously young and old, either way, unprepared.

Monday, April 18, 2005

"Stone Reader"

This weekend Middlebrow, my father and I watched "Stone Reader," a documentary about a guy who read a book, The Stones of Summer, and then became obsessed with the author, Dow Mossman, because he'd never written anything else. So Mark, the filmmaker, sets out on this quest to find Dow, and in the meantime he interviews book critics and Leslie Fiedler and a bunch of writers who went to Iowa at about the same time as Dow. The movie is ultimately about more than just the one book and Dow, who never published another book (and in my opinion has OCD and is hypergraphic). It's about Mark's love of books and how books, even just one book, can change your life forever. Mark talks about Catch-22, which was one of my favorite books in high school. My junior year I had this amazing teacher and we also read No Exit and Waiting for Godot. Talk about mind blowing.
I recommend everyone see this movie. In the meantime, I want to know, what book did it for you? What was the one book that took the top of your head off and made you understand what books can do when they are really, really, really, really good?
Since Catch-22 is taken (by filmmaker Mark), I'll say Slaughterhouse 5 (and pretty much everything by Vonnegut) and The World According to Garp. I went through a big Vonnegut and Irving phase in high school and read everything by both of them. I've since fallen behind on both, but I still love them.
How about you?

Friday, April 15, 2005

More Real Life vs. Academia

Rather than replying to Hightouch Megastore down in the footnotes of commentland, I decided to continue what I was talking about yesterday.
Yes! I completely agree with HTMS's comment that the most efficient method for avoiding the nearly impossible struggle is to. . .avoid it. Obviously, I am not in it for the glory. If so, I probably would be on the fast track somewhere with a bleeding ulcer and no life. As it is, I spent the morning with Son. We went to the park and then to Great Harvest for our free sample of Pumpkin and Chocolate Chip bread. (yum! Delicious!) Then we walked home and I watched him dig holes in the yard while I read a book for fun and professional edification (Bird by Bird).
I do think single men and some women have gotten ahead in this system that rewards what it rewards, but I also think many men have suffered. Some of them don't realize it, but I think many of them do miss out on their children's lives and regret it later.
So, as I said in a letter to the Chronicle (which was published some time back), I think the way for academic couples to balance work and life is for both of them to work in such a way that both of them get to do their own work and both of them get to spend time with the kids (or Kid in this case). I hope it can work out. I think it can. I'm the Little Academic Who Could!
I must go pull Son away from "George Shrinks" which he would watch 24 hours a day if it were on that long. Then there is always laundry and reading to "balance."
Life goes on, thank goodness!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Balancing Motherhood and Work/Academia

Today I am responding, in a thoughtful and angry manner, to an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education: It's All an Illusion by Simone Schweber. Actually, I liked a lot of what she had to say and especially how she gave her opinion through two anecdotes involving cupcakes and elevators. She basically said what we all know: it's hard to be a mother and an academic, and often times we fail at being either mothers or academics. But what made me angry was when she said this: "What I have learned, I suppose, since graduate school, is that I can't do it all, but I'm willing to keep trying to look like I am, knowing that I will frequently fail. "
Huh? How can we get through graduate school and then, once we become academics, agree to "keep up appearances"? Is it so that female graduate students, observing us, will say, "Gee, when I grow up I hope I can keep it all together like her?" Granted, Ms. Schweber has admitted in print that she frequently is NOT keeping it all together. But instead of saying "I'm willing to keep trying to look like I am" why not say THE CURRENT ACADEMIC SYSTEM IS HOSTILE TO FAMILIES AND ESPECIALLY TO WOMEN WHO WANT TO WORK AND BE MOTHERS. Perhaps, like many of us, Ms. Schweber has seen the futility in trying to change the system. But I don't think the answer is to focus on appearances, to keep looking like we are keeping it all together while we, in fact, are not. Why not just admit, once and for all, that it is damn near impossible to be a fabulously successful academic and a fabulously devoted mother at the same time, and it shouldn't be. There should be more support for working mothers and fathers. There should be time off for life events like the flu and the first day of kindergarten. If the academy is made up of people who know theory back and forth, why, pray tell, do we not put some of this radical theory into practice?

I, for one, will do so. I don't think parents should have to apologize for being committed to their children. I don't think I should have to apologize to Son for taking time for writing. I am a hopeless romantic: There IS a perfect world here, somewhere. We just have to make it. It's only an illusion if you refuse to stop acting.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Conferencing with Students

Today I met with students about their research papers. It was great. It was great because it's a class of 8 and I only met with 4 today. It's amazing how generous and giving one can be when one only has to read 4 papers and have intelligent things to say about them. I've forgotten how productive conferencing can actually be. Conferencing can be productive, but so difficult to do with a class of 24 (or more classes than one or two). Which is why, when one makes the leap from grad student (teaching 2) to Professor (teaching 4?) the conferencing often fades away into a distant memory. It's too bad because students can get so much out of conferencing. I also got a lot out of the conferences. I can get direct information about what, lately, has been helpful. The feedback I got today indicates that they all got a lot out of outlining (2 sentences for each paragraph: What is this paragraph saying? What is it doing?) and also an exercise where they looked at the first and last sentences of each paragraph (transitions, cohesion). It is an Honors course, but I don't feel like my students are fundamentally different from the other students I've had in Writing or English classes. They still have problems with cohesion and organization; they still need to push their ideas; they need to invigorate their writing with active verbs.
It makes me laugh when politicians say that "throwing money" at education won't solve Any Problems. HA! Throw some money at me! Hire more teachers. Make classes smaller. Give teachers time to work one-on-one with their students. This won't solve Any Problems? Right.
Okay. I am putting my soapbox away now. It is time to read Son a book and tuck him into bed. Watch some "Law and Order." Go to sleep.
Novel Update: I got some good ideas about structure yesterday, which just reinforces my belief that I am always writing even when I outwardly appear to be doing something else (like watching TV or staring vacantly into space or doing dishes). Today I wrote 800 words. It's not the 1,000 words I aspire to, but at least it was for The Novel. Lately I've been writing other things and feeling like a Failed Novelist (not an elite club, I know). But I have some renewed hope. I'll probably dip into Bird by Bird again. She always makes me feel better. Gotta tune out KFKD!
And good night!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Another School Holiday

Today marks the beginning of my (most recent) failed attempt to get up at 6 a.m. to write. I used to be a morning person, and then I had a child, which forces one to become a morning person in a different sense. So "sleeping in" becomes some kind of mythic Camelot which you hear a lot about but never actually experience yourself. So you set your alarm to get up early. Why fight it? I finally got out of bed at 6:45 and began typing around 7. Son got up at 7:30 and I let him watch PBS for an hour. (read= I'm a bad mom). He has a school holiday today (for Parent-Teacher Conferences) which means that as I type he performs various experiments on my hair using a wrench and a tape measure (you think I'm kidding, but I'm not!). I promised him a trip to the local library, which probably will involve a stop at the store that has a train to play with and maybe a visit to the health food store where he can play with the fake kitchen. He told me not to invite any of his friends. He wants to put gel in his hair. These are the concerns of my Monday.
Also: I am trying to write a "politically inspired" story, which started out fun, but maybe is turning too didactic, as in lots of words I feel the need to capitalize like Democracy In Action. It actually started out kind of funny with a parody of one of my grammar teachers from jr. high who never bathed (that's not the funny part!). Anyway, any hints from you political folks on how to be funny AND political without being boring and strident? Again, I hang on your every word. Ciao!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

"Closer" (the movie)

Middlebrow and I watched "Closer" last night. A friend mentioned that I should see it so that we could discuss it. Let me preface my remarks by saying that I love Clive Owen pretty much unconditionally. That said, let me proceed with my critique:
Yes, the film is stagey. It was adapted from a play and the film pretty much shows that. I don't mind the stiff, dramatic dialogue. In fact, I thought much of the dialogue was sharp and witty.
My problem is that I'm not sure where the moral/ethical center of the film is. In the end, as I told Middlebrow last night, the social contract triumphs over either love or justice. Now, by ethical or moral I don't necessarily mean a religious sense of morals or ethics. What I mean is that I want there to be some statement of some kind about the decisions made by the characters. Maybe they are "bad" in some kind of cultural sense, but that the author is commenting on the decisions or the character of the characters in some way. But in the end, I felt like the manipulative people triumphed and the characters who felt genuine emotions were still sad and depressed. Yes, I know, life is like this. But do I really need a play or movie to tell me this? I know life is hard and love can often time cause more pain than anything else. And sure, the dialogue was good and Clive Owen torched the screen every time he showed up. And Natalie Portman is ridiculously attractive. So what? This was my feeling at the end of the movie. People who feel suffer, and people who are good at manipulating other people continue to be good at manipulating other people. They have nice offices and make a lot of money and marry the pretty women (no pun intended). The other people suffer and continue to suffer. Lie, the movie seems to say, because then you won't feel bad and neither will anyone else.
What, I ask you, IS the moral center of this movie? I am asking my students to write manifestos of what art is for. I think it's time I write one. I used to think art should be unsettling, and I still think this. But it can't be merely unsettling. It has to be unsettling with a point. That's all for now. I anxiously await your comments.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

In the Dog House

I am in the dog house because I stayed out too late last night. My fabulous (and I do mean fabulous) friend had his book release party and I lost control. I rationalize this by explaining that I so rarely lose control that when I do, I really lose it. I told Middlebrow I left my copy of the book in "some guy's car" and he guffawed loudly. Then he said, "some guy?" I do know exactly where I left it, and I even know the guy's name, so I'm hoping to get it back soon. And besides, that guy was fabulous too. Every one was so fabulous that there was lots of kissing and arm rubbing and general giddiness at our collective good fortune at being so fabulous and sexy and being in the company of other people who are equally fabulous and sexy. With so much fabulous, sexy energy, can I be blamed for not remembering that I am married with an adorable child? Can I be blamed for not recalling that phones exist and should be used after 10 p.m., especially when one's incredibly caring and understanding mate might, conceivably, worry about the status of his beloved, especially when she is surrounded by fabulous, sexy people who might not think twice about exploiting his absence? I ask you, can I be held accountable under such taxing and fabulous circumstances?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Teaching Monologues/Radio Essays

My interest in teaching monologues arose out of a personal interest in radio essays, from listening to This American Life and an interest in the work of Spalding Gray, who I really feel invented his own form of the monologue. He began performing monologues when he had a role in Chekhov’s The Seagull and then his mother died or became sick, and so he was never able to perform the role he had prepared for, so he recited his lines from the play along with a monologue he had written about his mother and his own life. What I particularly admire about Gray’s work is the way he is able to look at himself through the intersection of his own life and events outside himself. In “Swimming to Cambodia” this is especially true; in the movie he situates his own experiences making the movie “The Killing Fields” in the context of Cambodian history and the history of American-Cambodian relations. So what I borrowed from Gray was the idea that our personal narratives always intersect with local, national or international narratives. What I asked my students to do was to write a personal narrative that related events in their own lives to something outside themselves.
Now, I should also say that at the time I was teaching this class, in 2003, several events were foremost in the minds of my students: namely, the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart from a neighborhood that borders the University of Utah, and the impending war in Iraq. So when I showed them clips from Spalding Gray’s movie “Swimming to Cambodia” I could almost see them having these “Aha!” moments.
I gave my students the assignment of writing a two-page narrative about what they did on Spring Break with the requirement that they refer to current events in some way. I should also say that this particular class had a very jovial and humorous personality. Also in this class, unlike other courses I have taught at the University of Utah (which are usually 99 to 100% white students), I had an Iranian student and an African-American student. The students were required to write the monologue and to read or perform them in front of class.
What happened was that when my students came back from spring break the Iranian student read her essay about participating in anti-war protests and what, specifically, drivers had yelled at her as they drove past the corner where the protest was taking place. Then another student read his essay about drinking beer on Saint Patrick’s Day with his brother who was about to ship out to Iraq. Another student read an essay about shopping for lingerie while wondering where Elizabeth Smart was. Then the African-American student read an essay about stereotypes and dating in Utah that was so funny that by the end, everyone was laughing so hard they were crying. Finally, another student read an essay about racial politics and the city bus, called "Discipline and Punish on Public Transit."
What I learned from this assignment is that requiring students to contextualize their own experiences and to perform their own work in their own voices had inspired students in ways that exceeded the usual assignment to write an essay (or a story or a poem). What this assignment had required was that they not only step back from their own experience to take in the world around them, but also that they look to the world around them in order to see their own experiences. And because the world around them rarely conforms to the structures they are familiar with, offering students alternative forms can open creative writing to those who do not see their voices fitting neatly into a story, a poem or an essay. Part of this is clearly their own preconceptions about what constitutes a poem, essay or story, but part of it is the failure of some forms to convey what students, when they speak in their own voices, need to say. Like Spalding Gray they can create their own forms, or transform familiar forms by speaking in their own voices and of their own experiences. What the monologue provided for the students was a form that required a consideration of audience and reflection on their own thoughts.
The energy of the monologues derived from combining two disparate narratives: the personal and the public. And this is the strength of teaching other forms in the creative writing classroom: it forces students to integrate ideas and genres that they had previously thought of as separate. If one of the goals of creative writing is to encourage creativity, then the best way I know how to do this is by allowing students to speak and to claim forms as their own.
(Another resource: transom.)

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Brushes with Greatness at AWP

Howard Norman said “Hello” to me before the Anne Carson reading. I was standing, as is my wont, next to the free water drinking as much as possible before I dashed to the bathroom and back before the reading started. He walked by and I made eye contact and he said “Hello.” I am sorry to report that I did not shake his hand.
But wait, that happened the day after the reception after the reading by Michael Ondaatje. I missed the reading because of a long, fabulous meal at Rain City Grill with AWP Board Member (Husband and Adorable! Baby), Writing Conference President, Writer Friend, and Graduate School Friend. I had to change out of my Conference Presentation Shoes (black boots with heels) and into running shoes. By the time I got to the reading they had closed the doors and would not let me in. So I went out for a drink (I love how you can get draft hard cider, like, basically everywhere but SLC) and then to the reception for the authors whose reading I had missed. I liked how MO was grandfatherly, complete with white hair. Also: much shorter than I had realized. I guess everyone is. I was drinking Jack & Ginger (did I mention the Open Bar?) and “stalking” the famous people.
Wallace Shawn: Yeah. What the hell? Apparently he’s “involved” with Deborah Eisenberg so he was there. A few young girls had their picture taken with him. I was not so bold. I admired him from afar. “Wallace Shawn,” I imagined myself saying. “I loved you in Vanya on 42nd Street. And My Dinner with Andre? Loved it.” Sadly, when I tried to explain who he was to everyone, I invariably had to revert to “Princess Bride.” Others knew him because of his voice over work in “Toy Story.”
Anne Carson began her reading by reciting a “Short Talk” and then the audience (divided into two choruses) responded with “Let’s buy it!” and “What a bargain!” She read some translations of Catullus and an oratorio with a repeating chorus using lines from Gertrude Stein and a piece she had written “about” an work of art, each line beginning with “if…” I, and a few others, gave her a standing ovation. She was so fabulous. She exceeded my expectations.
I also saw some of my great former teachers and other fantastic and generous writers. Most notably: Joe Wenderoth of Letters to Wendy’s fame; Pam Houston; Kevin McIlvoy, (check out his new book at Graywolf Press); Bruce Beasley, (new book, Lord Brain, from University of Georgia Press); Peter Covino (Cut off the Ears of Winter, New Issues Press); also check out everything from FC2, including Karen Brennan’s new book.
Also I saw the library in downtown Vancouver. Look familiar? As my friends said, they got the rough draft, we got the glorious glassy perfected jewel. C'mon, we have to have something over Vancouver. Besides the sunshine that is.
All in all, a fantastic trip aside from the 3:45 (yes, a.m.) alarm and 6:25 departure. Plus springing forward. See you next year in Austin!
Perhaps I'll post the text of my presentation tomorrow.