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05 July 2015

FLAG WAVING





“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”—Erma Bombeck 

A friend of mine died just a couple of years ago. She was a child in Europe during WW2 and was visiting here in Oregon on the coast during our 4th of July in the 80s. It was a horrific experience for her. Since then, many of my students have returned home and a few have not returned after serving their country. Many of them suffer lasting injury, physical and mental, from their service. But the most impactful story to me was one explained by the daughter of a man who fought in the first Gulf War and how changed he was, how damaged from his terrible experience. 


It is supposed to be the winning side that gets to tell history, but the treasonous rebels in our Civil war have been rewriting history for 150 years. "Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.'It's time we called them on it. The Civil War was about slavery.' " Despite a century and a half of trying to make it about something else, it is time to admit we fought a war about ownership of people, and many statements made before and during that war make that abundantly clear. 

After opting a link about this, a FB friend posted back: "There are many people who are filled with fear at the sight of a pirate flag as they have had life threatening experiences at the hands of today's pirates. We should outlaw all pirate flags and skull and crossbones emblems and symbols. All fireworks should also be abolished because of their impact on soldiers at home who are suffering from PTSD after serving in action." 

So perhaps you can understand why I began with the story of my friend who could still not stand to hear explosions forty years after the fact. (Perhaps the FB poster is being sincere or perhaps sarcastic, because I feel a disconnect between the beginning and ending of his comment.) I posted about this very issue on FB: . . . “the patients [veterans] asked for a separate group where they could talk about the heavier stuff, the guilt stuff” because we do not only ask them to die for us, and they suffer from having done things against their moral code. Set aside the rah-rah for a moment and consider how necessary actions continue to pain our veterans long after society considers their work "over and done".

I find it ironic that the very people I know who are so insistent about the respecting the Pledge and "honoring the flag" are the very people who seem not to understand why this emblem is problematic. My father, who served in the Army in Europe (in Germany) during WW2, used to shake his head at people's ignorance and misunderstanding of our history.

A friend sends holiday cards that, for whatever holiday, consistently include a message about people "actively seeking to destroy our nation and the Constitution." Like most Americans, it's unlikely that this man has actually read the Constitution. Ever. He has plenty of conspiracy theories and a lot of fear, but no reason. For many years I required all my students to memorize The Preamble to the Constitution. It's a carefully worded document, hammered out behind closed doors and, as Janis Ian points out in a meme, with no mention of God whatsoever, but with concern for a more perfect Union.

Look again at the photo up top taken shortly after dawn this morning. Two American flags fly on the beach. They were left out all night, hanging from sticks because someone thought that was what it means to be patriotic. (According to official guidelines: "Traditional guidelines call for displaying the flag in public only from sunrise to sunset. However, the flag may be displayed at all times if it’s illuminated during darkness.") In fact they were disrespecting the flag. In a dissimilar manner a man was wearing our nation's flag cut into shorts on the street in Seaside this morning disrespected the flag. 

But fireworks on the 4th? 

I have issues there too. I love fireworks. At a distance. I do not enjoy them directly overhead. I am horrified by fireworks mistakenly fired sideways, handled by young children, and booming at all hours of the day and night.

There were hundreds of fires in every metropolitan area of our country yesterday. Dogs cowered, veterans mentally prepared themselves for explosions that are mostly illegal, and we watched lanterns float high overhead and sometimes directly over our house on an exceptionally dry 4th. 

Yesterday I made potato salad and stayed out till 10 watching the displays. The explosions ended after midnight. This morning there are newly dead birds all over the beach between the debris from legal and illegal fireworks. 







"The business aspects of the Fourth of July is not perfect as it stands. See what it costs us every year with loss of life, the crippling of thousands with its fireworks, and the burning down of property. It is not only sacred to patriotism and universal freedom, but to the surgeon, the undertaker, the insurance offices - and they are working it for all it is worth."—Mark Twain, 4 July 1899, "The Day We Celebrate"


04 July 2015

CATCHING UP WITH MYSELF

Independence Day. It is one of our anniversaries.

On July Fourth in 1972, my husband and I moved into a disreputable apartment building, "Big Pink" a few blocks from the University District in Seattle. Six apartments were squeezed into what had once been a 4-bedroom, 1 bath craftsman home. Another four or five units were carved out of a second, smaller home shoved unto the back. Our unit was the front and back parlor and the minuscule kitchen and bath (the bath so small we had to step into the shower to close the narrow door) carved from half of a narrow porch. It was hot that day and all the windows were painted shut. 


Independence. 

Living in Big Pink was an adventure and I have already written about those years. 

Now we are beginning a new adventure, or at least that is what people keep telling me.
Immediate goals in retirement included things I simply had not had time for while I was teaching: reading books, walking each morning, warping my loom, painting the living room, finishing the half-completed quilt I meant to send as a gift in January (of last year), binding another quilt that was machine-quilted by Linda Pinkstaff last fall, baking bread, eating better (yes, it takes more time), knitting my husband new socks, writing. 

Gary and I have walked every morning since my last day of school. We are sorting shelves and courageously emptying bookshelves and filling boxes. One quilt is done, one living room wall is painted, and yesterday I baked bread—wonderful bread! But there is still much to do. 

I would like to sew a garment. I would like to travel someplace. Lisbon. San Francisco. Orcas. There is the cookbook I will never complete. I have boxes of fabrics and yarn waiting to be fashioned into more quilts and scarves and shawls. My Koh-I-Noor stylus fountain pens that I used for decades are probably all frozen and I have been afraid to test them, but this morning I found cleaning solution for them, so that is on my list. I need to continue sorting my books—perform that magic of holding Jane Austen and Chinua Achebe in my hands to see if their novels still make me happy or curious or something else that I will want to continue experiencing. 

Gary is moving storage boxes and cartons of files upstairs and out to the garage to get them out of the boys' old rooms. I have hung the new light—a vintage light exactly like one I sold years ago in a garage sale—over Ruby's bed for when family visits later this month. 

We need to plan out a garage sale. I was pushing for the 4th of July weekend. Gary knew we would not make it. Time will tell if we mange it before Labor Day. 

And I have time. I have a willingness to accept that I do not need to keep every book and every issue of Poets & Writers magazine. This willingness to let others' writing go seems to have given me a new perspective on my own writing. There is a book, maybe even a particular book, that I hope to rewrite and illustrate for our grandchildren. That is one thing I would like to write because I know it will be read at least once. I have a shelf of journals and thousands of books no one I love will ever read again. Maybe that is why I cannot work up much enthusiasm for writing adult fiction. I have favorite authors and books that are deeply meaningful to me, but I find it impossible to imagine myself writing such a book. My reality has overwhelmed me during the last decade, and my best writing has been right here on my blog. 

A former student is making a living through her blog, but another blog I used to read daily, has bemoaned the death of blogs. Not many people have blogs anymore, or post on them regularly if they have them, or often read them whether or not they have their own blogs. I have a few people who have told me they read my blog, but sometimes I think they say this to be polite. 

I am not a polite person though I try to be kind. I try not to say cruel things, but I do not lie. 

The trouble is that the longer I live the more I understand that my truth is only my own and not necessarily anyone else's, it may not even be my truth for long. 

In the mean time, the sand is back—moving rapidly up our beach path higher than we have seen since the winter of 1998-1999, and we will survive tonight's explosions.

02 July 2015

ON NOT READING EVERY THING

I read an advance reader copy and honestly loved Gordon's
understanding of art better than the sex, but others disagree.
According to her byline, Julia Robins is a Ms. editorial intern and a graduate of William & Mary. She has a post on the Ms. blog, "Christian Grey Is 50 Shades of Sexist." 

This is where I say: Well, duh. Didn't she get the memo? 

She admits to buying the newest book from James and reading it, but she didn't like it. 

Well, duh. Again. My comment on her post is "awaiting moderation" which in my experience is unlikely to arrive. 


"In a 2012 interview with TIME, E.L. James summed up the complexities of Christian Grey’s character: 'He’s very good looking, he’s very good at sex, he’s disgustingly rich, he’s every woman’s dream—in a way.'
"Yes…in a way."—Robins

I have an old friend who sees hundreds of films in a year—literarily multiple hundreds—and every time he reviews a really awful film on his blog and gives it a D-minus, I wonder, isn’t his time worth more than a dumb children's movie he already knows he won't like? But he enjoys the entire movie-going experience, and he sees pretty much everything. I understand that. 

My own habits run more to reading, but even in a good year of my life—because I actually do have a life—I don’t read more than a few dozen novels. There are plenty of choices. Among novels alone, the United States publishes enough novels in a single year to keep me busy reading for another lifetime, perhaps 60-80 thousand. 

So. I am seriously asking myself, doesn’t this young woman who works for a feminist magazine have better things to do with her time than to purchase and read a novel she should already knows is trash? (Try Mary Gordon’s Spending if she wants a little soft porn. It includes enough sexual situations to be titillating and even embarrassing to me, but it's not sexually humiliating.) 

I haven't read James' novel and I don't think I need to read it in order to prove anything. There have been terrible reviews available for years that convince me I don't want to read his novels. I read all the Harry Potter novels and the Hunger Game novels, but I drew the line at Twilight. Good friends who read YA novels assured me I didn't need to read them. 

Isn't that the point of reviews and friends's opinions of books? I am spared reading something that will merely irritate or flat out anger me. I can focus on books that include flaws I am willing to overlook for other aspects of greatness.

The film version of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It eliminates the sexism and racism of the novella. I read that book all the way through, though I did throw the book across the room at one point—I am capable of seeing past some things, and Maclean is a beautiful writer. Stegnor didn't lose me for failing to credit the real life story of Mary Hallock Foote (not to mention using her metaphor as his title), but well into Big Rock Candy Mountain, which uses so many other true stories, the wife is blamed for her husband's failure to achieve greatness, and I stopped reading. I managed to finish Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia despite not liking any of her characters. I adored One Hundred Years of Solitude but in Love in the Time of Cholera where Florentino decides to wait till his young ward is 13 before seducing/raping her, that book hit the wall and failed to come back. 

My point is that life is too short for me to waste time on reading experiences I know I will not enjoy. 




06 June 2015

I HELPED

This image of three Italian Greyhounds has been on my desktop for weeks . . .
two sniffing, one being sniffed. 

Yesterday, a senior who was in my classes last year came and talked to me for the better part of an hour. She's happy to graduate, but we talked about what was in her future and what we were doing. Nothing special. I was glad to have her company for a time. I was happy to observe how much more comfortable she seems with herself over the past couple of years. 

Another student gave me a book yesterday. He had been a difficult student last fall and we did not at first get along, but once I understood what he needed from me, I did better. The two of us managed well in class together for the rest of the first and also the second term. The book of poetry was quite unexpected—an old book, my favorite sort. 


A third student has come by three times to say goodbye. 

A few hugs too, and sweet goodbyes from seniors.

My students have been among the greatest gifts of my life. I did not not "go to work" at Seaside High School for twenty-five years. It was not a job. It was something more.

Maybe it's the moon or the weather. Maybe it's the tension because of graduation of seniors I know so well and also the graduation of this particular senior. Maybe it's seeing my classroom empty out.

The walls are already nearly bare. I've sorted most of the shelves—just a box left to take home there. Most of what is left to sort is hidden away in a cupboard. I probably should have taken photos of my room before the books came off the shelves and the posters and maps and paintings and student notes came down from the walls. (The books and notes, at least, come home. I have a box where I keep every kind note I've ever been given by a student, and the college graduation announcements, which always make me smile.)

My fourth period class came in after lunch and said, "Whoa, what happened?" I'd pulled down all but the work from my design class. The room feels different now that it's getting empty.

Last night I fell asleep on the couch early again, but then I woke after nine and I was awake nearly all night. I tried reading and then tried sleeping again. I walked out to look at the beach.

There is too much change all at once.

People keep congratulating me on my retirement, as if it were an accomplishment. The trouble is it doesn't yet feel like a victory I should celebrate. 


It feels an awful lot like failure.

I feel I have given up—given up teaching just as I am giving up my classroom. Next fall, a teacher will be working hard in my room and that person will not be me. 


A friend who retired recently urged me to be "someplace else" when school starts in the fall. She warned that I didn't want to be around for the start of school. Another friend had already confided that the sound of school buses in September after he retired was difficult. It felt wrong to him not to be headed back to school.

So that is what I have been avoiding by falling asleep early each evening this week, and that is what wakes me—more than the moon—and keeps me awake most nights.

Yes, it's getting close. 


I have been invited to graduation parties, but I do not go to parties, though I love being asked. I am not good at parties and I have so much to do this time of year. This year especially.

My students are tired and I am tired and we are all looking forward to "summer." Yes, me too.

I shaved a question off the last exam for one class. I cut an entire 3-page essay for another class. They think I am doing them favors, but the truth is I am too tired to demand more. The truth is, they could do that last essay and do it well, and I feel I have cheated them by not making them write it.

My hard-working students really do not see it that way. I understand that.

The rapid approach of summer is fine. I have lots of little tasks I look forward to completing at home. 

Not coming back in the fall, well, that is something else. That reality of my retirement feels like a bludgeon. I will likely get over this feeling of failure. I hope so. I've been trying to talk myself around with little luck so far. But I have hope.

A former student messaged me just yesterday to assure me he hasn't had a class in college that was as hard as mine was in high school. He says a lot of his peers have no idea how to approach the writing assignments in their classes. He is completely comfortable with them. Yes, I made him work way too hard in high school, but I like to think that work is paying off for him now. He's a very smart person, but I think I helped. 


30 May 2015

LIBRARY CARD

A library is a storehouse of information. The library at my school has no budget for new books. The money is all going to technology and according to those who know, this isn't ever going to change. Actual books are out of favor. Mine are coming home. 

There is considerable debate these days about whether paper books have any place in the future. Tablets are certainly more convenient but offer disadvantages, according to some studies that suggest part of what we learn from books is dependent upon their physicality. We rely on the thickness of paper, the placement of words on pages, and other visual and tactile clue to help us recall and recover what we have already read. It is not just finding our place in a book; it is about finding our own thoughts and discoveries plucked from the book. It's possible that happens best when we hold the paper book in our hands. 


And regardless of what works best, a lot of people still love books. I am one.


My earliest clear memory of a library is not the classroom used as a library in my first or second elementary schools. I best recall Shoreline Public Library, a small one-story building of less than 500 square feet divided by high bookcases into a series of alcoves. Entering from the wide front porch, encyclopedias were on the right with the Librarian's desk behind. Children's picture books and early readers were at the left. The trick was getting to and from the Library because my parents had one car and it was too far to walk or ride my bike—or anyway, these were not options I chose. I read 43 books the summer before third grade. I presented my Library card with evidence of this accomplishment to my Third Grade teacher in September. She took it without praise, put it away, and I never saw it again. I understood that reading was a private accomplishment, not one others would admire. 


When I had read all the horse books the library had for children—all of Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry I could find, and the rest—I began scanning the adult section for more.

This changed by the time I was a student at Cordell Hull Junior High. My interests had expanded as a result of discovering Mark Twain and Treasure Island through school assignments. The school library was larger, and I read many books such as Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve and a biography about a young woman who lost a leg but carried on all over the world. My friend Toni, who had also volunteered for the library at our junior high, got the part-time job at the new, quite beautiful Shoreline Public Library. I checked out only a few books there. Better than that library that was a long walk from home, there was a bookstore at Aurora Village, a mall just a mile or so away, where I could walk and there buy my own books, including I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a semi-autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, written under the pen name of Hannah Green. My parents argued over me having that book. Perhaps they were concerned it would give me unhealthy ideas about mental illness, suggest behaviors that were not good for me? I read conventional books like Nancy Drew, too, but I could not tell you a thing about them now. I still remember quite a bit about Greenberg's hospitalization.


I don't recall checking out a single book from the school library at Shoreline High School. I did not like the space aesthetically. It was too sterile and low and the books seemed foreign to me. My father had been taking me to Suzzallo Library on the University of Washington campus since I was in sixth grade. It was a palace, even then, larger than my entire high school where I now teach, and several stories tall. There was a book about trolls I used for a school report in seventh grade. It was in Norwegian. 


There was always a book store. I bought Theodore Isaac Rubens' books and more of Twain and Edgar Allen Poe—books about caring for horses and fairy tales and witchcraft and Tales of Mystery and Imagination. 


Later, as a student at the UW, I rarely used the libraries and only for research. I worked throughout college at the University Book Store on the Ave, then the largest college book store in the world. Perhaps it still is. I was able to purchase books at a discount, and even textbooks were discounted 10%. The treat I allowed myself at the end of each term
was to purchase novels to read over break as a way of decompressing and because none of my classes assigned novels.

When we moved back to Oregon in 1979, I was dismayed to discover that I was not "in-district" for any public library. All the time our children were little and we struggled to get by on one salary, a library card would have been an expense. 


So I did what I'd always liked best: I bought books. And I bought books. I filled shelves. I found more bookcases. I filled them too. 

My husband and I are both distrustful of homes that do not have well-stocked bookcases. We find it hard to understand people who do not love books and own many. It has been especially troubling to me to visit the home of an educator who does not have a book in sight. 


Books can, on the other hand, become a problem. Today, I think it might be accurate to say I possess most of the books I have ever owned—though certainly not all of them. A lot of books. A clear majority. Gary has taken most of my school duplicates to Powell's Book Store. (We always take store credit. Why pretend we will not be back to buy more?) Many boxes of books have gone to charity. I recently gave away nearly all my graphic novels to my son who draws because I bought them for class I will never teach again.  


And still. There are more books than ever in my house, especially the boxes from my school shelves that want sorting—I thought I'd done that already. Alas. Despite rigorous efforts at selling books and giving them away, I still own thousands, and Gary owns hundreds more. 


Between us, my husband and I could stock most every case in that long-ago Shoreline Public Library—children's books, classics, fiction, science, history, anthropology, art, psychology and sociology and psychiatry, texts from various subjects, poetry and drama. My house has become the library of my childhood.


There might be a lesson there someplace. 


People ask me what wonderful plans I have in retirement. (They mean travel.) I tell them I have no plans in particular. The truth is I am making a bulleted list. Travel will have to wait, but this summer I hope to accomplish a long list of neglected chores. Several of my bullets are devoted to clearing out some of the books, and I will be reading others. 


Maybe I will even pay for a library card. 



13 May 2015

WE TALK ABOUT MOVING

We talk about moving. We talk about being closer to our family in Portland. There are more theaters and literary events and concerts and markets in Portland. And then every morning we wake up and look at this. We don't mind fog. We like the rain. The storms are wonderful. The still mornings when we walk are a blessing. This is where we live. 

We were talking in 1st period about New Orleans. (I think I probably mispronounced it, but I said it the way I was taught by a native. Maybe he was messing with me.) A boy in that class looked up and grinned ear to ear. I'd never seen him smile like that before. Turns out, New Orleans is where he's from. It's home. (And maybe I said the name of his hometown right, or more probably completely wrong.) He talked gumbo and I talked beignet. Yes, the food was the best ever. We talked about the water table, the dust, the heat and humidity, tank-top weather in the middle of the night. 

Mom and I went to New Orleans during Jazz Festival almost thirty years ago. I was there for a nonprofit conference, so Mom and I had a reduced rate at a 4 star hotel neither of us could afford without splitting the cost of the room. Pool on the roof, piano bar, a chocolate-on-pillow hotel. I learned to move slow, take a midday nap, and stay up into the middle of the night listening to live jazz. I thought I could live there six weeks a year. It was pure luxury. 

After Mom died, Gary and I went to Orcas Island in the San Juans. There was something charming to us about the scale of everything on the island—the homes, the roads, the mountain. The deer were petite. I'd found another place I could spend a couple of weeks out of a year. 

But there has never been a place I wanted to actually move if it meant moving away. 

I know home. We walk the beach. We talk about moving.




23 April 2015

DAY 23: KEEPING BUSY

From the Day 23 NaPoWriMo: "Today, I challenge you to take a chance, literally. Find a deck of cards (regular playing cards, tarot cards, uno cards, cards from your 'Cards Against Humanity' deck – whatever), shuffle it, and take a card – any card! Now, begin free-writing based on the card you’ve chosen. Keep going without stopping for five minutes. Then take what you’ve written and make a poem from it. (Hat tip to Amy McDaniel for the idea!)"

From 2009 Poets & Writers: "Choose a poem that you are in the process of revising. Create a map of that poem, paying attention to the gradation of its landscape, its realities and abstractions, its landmarks, the spacial relationships among its features. Use the map to guide a revision of the initial work." This is a great revision strategy. It works extremely well for memoir, and also for fiction.

The Writer's Digest 2014 PAD Challenge suggests we "write a location poem. Location could be physical–like the laundromat, a public park, a glacier, flying saucer, etc. Or location could be emotional, psychological, metaphysical, or some other kind of word that ends in -al. Or surprise everyone!"



Packing Up My Classroom

On two walls are the fables my students wrote 

this year. Nearly every one revised to perfection—
a rarity these days when too often they or I give up 
before we're done with fixing point of view slips 
and verb tense. The window blind was always broken, 
but once my class and I figured out how to adjust 
the brightness of the new projector, it doesn't matter 
so much. I have postcards in an eye-level row 
no one has examined closely since September. 
(Maybe it's time to add secret messages about age. 
Perhaps I am in danger of becoming a cute old lady. 
Too often students look at old photos of me, declare 
they do not recognize their teacher at age 22 or 45 
because I "was beautiful!" back then, and for the record, 
I never was, but my husband still believes I am.
Three shelves are empty of books sent home, fourteen
still to go. The malfunctioning heater will remain. 
Four file cabinets are mostly cleared. My successor 
might want what's left—the stacks of magazines,
the literary journals. Rumor is she plans to carry on 
the fall project. She will be sorry and glad—it's more 
work than she knows. The Dell can rot, the printer 
still needs toner, and the chair was third-hand trash 
when I inherited it a decade ago. I won't miss them. 
But last night in the Library—which I skipped
my writing group to attend—students asked me, one 
after another, how to do things clearly explained 
on a handout, in class, and from class experience—
and though I complain, that is what I will miss. 


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