Monday, April 07, 2014

The Ghost of April Present

It is April and in so many ways I wish that weren’t true.

It’s not that I have anything against the fourth month of the year, in fact, my family has seen a lot of good Aprils: the April I travelled with The Baker’s class on an east coast field trip, the April we went to see the Yankees in New York, the April spring break adventures —good times, all.

And it’s not that this one is bad, in fact, it’s actually quite good. I love my job, I’m losing weight, my family is awesome.

In fact the good of my story is the whole reason I’m here at the threshold of the second week of the month kicking and screaming for this ride to just slow down for a minute; for someone to find a way to just make the calendar pages stop flipping so flipping fast, so I can just freeze things here, and now because I’m just not ready for the month to be May and for things to change forever.

Because that’s what’s happening, really. I pretend, as much as I can, that it’s not true, that this isn’t the last April ever, the last month ever of the life I’ve known, but it is.

See, my daughter, The Baker, is getting married. This is a good thing, especially because she’s marrying the guy I knew was right for her 4 years ago.  The one I never gave up hope for, even the day she told me that it was never going to happen, the day she said, “if you like him so much, why don’t you go out with him?”

I love my new son, and I know our family will stretch and morph and reshape itself to be something new, that our story will be remade and begin anew.  But first?  First, there’s a lot of lasts.

And I kind of have this thing about lasts.  The years when the kids were little I’d catch myself wondering, is this the last season they’ll play together on the same soccer team?  Is this the last time they’ll run the wagon down the alley? Is this the last science fair, the last sleepover, the last family vacation?

And now that we’ve had the last of all those things—some recognized (Vermont, 2012 was the last big family vacation) some not (no idea when the last sleepover happened)—the lasts have become both more basic (how many times will it ever be just the four of us around the dinner table) and more immediate (three weeks from today she moves out).

 I could easily fall into the habit of measuring the weight of each moment, trying to savor, observe, and recognize the significance in its passing, but the truth is much more mundane.  The reality is that we’re ripping through days like a category 4 hurricane and it’s impossible to breathe, let along sigh deeply in contemplative reverie. 

But sometimes, like tonight, things just seem normal, like they always have been. As soon as I realize it, though, the moment passes, like so many others before it. And all I can do is acknowledge that yes, this is the very last page of a long and wonderful story; a story that was destined, from the very first sentence of the very first page to end. But if it must end, I can’t think of a better way to wrap the narrative than with the current plotline, or a better cast of characters with which to begin the sequel.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

It's a Numbers Game--But Who's Counting?

It’s a numbers game,” my friend, Joe, explained.

Several of us were cleaning up after the art show a couple Saturdays ago and conversation turned to fitness, which is a generally touchy subject for me. I work out, I eat good food…and none of that matters since the Great Road Trip of 2007. One of the last things I did before our van headed westward was hop on the scale.  I was down 3 pounds from my already-trim size 4 weight.  Over the month-long tour, I put on about 10 pounds—a net gain of seven pounds from my norm.  No big deal, right? Trouble was, not a single pound of that vacation weight budged and, worse, it became a flabby but stubborn foundation for a trend that soared ever upward.

Nearly seven years have passed, and I have tried everything to get my body back to my ideal—the magic number that had consistently defined my size for years prior to the trip. I ran. I went to the gym. I tried, I failed, I tried harder. I made a bit of temporary progress one spring when I worked out three times a day in order to look stellar in the Bahamas. It wasn’t sustainable, and, I got tendonitis. Two falls ago, I upped the ante on time, duration, and intensity during midmorning sessions at the campus gum.  “I’m going to have a whole new body by Thanksgiving,” I told myself.  Instead, I gained a pound and lost more hope.

Since harder didn’t seem to work, I tried different Lured in by an introductory offer on Groupon, I made one of the worst financial decisions of my life and blew $1800 on laser lypo. According to the clinic, I allegedly lost something like 27 inches from my torso and thighs but not a single person noticed—no wonder, as I didn’t even go down a pants size.

The “numbers game” Joe referenced was counting calories, which, I had to admit, was probably the one thing I had never tried.  I’m adverse to numbers, and keeping up with the minutia of every morsel I put in my mouth seemed tedious, and, frankly, impossible.  Plus, I my knowledge of what a calorie really is, and how it related to my size was really rather shaky.  I knew calories were out there, vaguely, in the same sort of way I know gravity, or RAM and ROM are things, but I don’t give them much though, you know?

Evidently, calories are kind of a big deal.  And now, thanks to technology (likely RAM and ROM are involved) there are apps that do all the work for you.  Joe showed me his favorite one, and I had to admit I was impressed. It scans barcodes on packaging, and has a database of calorie counts for, well, everything else. 

I think, like so much in life, messages resonate with us when we are truly ready and equipped to process them.  I’ve always known, of course, that eating too much makes you fat, but what’s too much?  I certainly didn’t eat too much, did I?

Joe didn’t realize it, but his word choice-- a numbers game--was what actually made things click for me.  See, a week or so before, I’d watched a TED talk by Jane McGonigal called “The Game That Can Give You 10 Extra Years of Life.”  Her story is below, and well worth the 19 and a half minutes, but let me summarize in case you're on a time budget. Jane is a gamer—games are her passion, they're what makes her tick.  And, as it happened, a game, of sorts, saved her life.  Jane became ill, and depression nearly consumed her, until she made a game of her recovery. She assembled a “team” (her husband and sister) and awarded herself “points” for small victories.  As she took control of her fate, she recovered.

Because Jane’s story was fresh in my mind, I realized that with Joe’s app, I could make a game out of getting my body back. I began to think.

Then came Fat Tuesday.  I decided to step on the scale and I saw the highest number I’d ever seen.  Encouraged by the added specter of the approaching Lenten season, I knew what I had to do.  I grabbed my phone and downloaded the app.  Game on!

Yesterday was three weeks into my game, and I’m ready to start sharing some stories from the playing field. I’m learning balance and moderation and developing a new relationship with food. But the best part? I’m winning! 

Now that I am confident I have turned a corner and I am on a successful path, I am ready to share some things I’ve learned.  I’ll be starting a new series of posts next Wednesday about what’s happened so far. I hope you’ll join me!

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Beats; or, Finding Our Own Rhythm

"Think of it like literary jazz," I offered, by way of explanation.  Having turned in their Travels trip journals last week, our classroom discussions shifted from adrenaline junkies and ethnocentrism to the beat generation as we collectively cracked the cover of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

To say Kerouac's style is different from Steinbeck and Crichton is like saying the soundtrack for Frozen (Did you catch this tribal cover of Let it Go?) is a little different than the soundtrack for last year's controversial The Great Gatsby.  One has tight structure and a discernible melody...the other is something you can't quite pigeonhole but could, loosely, be called jazz.

"Does it have a plot?" was an early question.

"There's an awful lot of characters" was another concern.

"ish" and "yeah," was about the best I could do, because, honestly, if I showed up at my MFA workshop with this stuff I'd be crucified.  "Where's the structure?" B would say, and, "Flesh out those characters!"  It just simply wouldn't fly.

Kerouac got away with his free-form, willy-nilly account of life as a young vagrant partly because of of a set of ideas influenced the collective art of the period-- what we now call the beat movement.  The beats rejected the status quo and embraced experimentation.  Jazz thrived within the context and, a jazz-like syncopation seeped into works like On the Road.

Many students view the protagonist, Sal, a wannabe writer and Kerouac's alter-ego as a maleable hobo with no real ambition.

"He just runs with the wind," N said.  "What are his goals?"

Other students were concerned with the economics of the who plan of traveling around the country meeting up with friends in various cities. I reminded them of an article I gave them around spring break, from National Geographic Traveler, forwarding the notion that being young and broke is the perfect time to travel.  Conversation then turned to couch surfing and Craigslist Joe.

But when conversation circled back to goals and aspirations, they still viewed the adventures as irresponsible and Sal a failure.

Then M pipers up.  "This guy is a writer, right? Well, writers need stuff to right about and it looks to me like he wrote about all these adventures and well, we're reading about them.  Fifty years later."

A thoughtful silence filled the room.  Yes, yes, success,  everyone seemed to realize, in unison.  There is value in the recorded experience.

And then i thought about my two semesters of MFA workshop, and of the conflicting advice:
"Don't begin with dialogue!" we heard in the fall.

Now it's spring, with a new leader at the helm and dialogue is fine.

""Don't tag dialogue with anything more descriptive than "he/she said"( ie: no one should "gush" or "explain."), a student parroted from a seminar.

"What? No!"  gushing and explaining is fine, according to B.

And you know what?  On some level, it's all nonsense.  If those things ever were rules, I shamelessly broke both in the opening line of this post. And Kerouac?  He doesn't have a discernible plot, structure, or fleshed out characters.  And it just doesn't matter. My students are forgiving of theses gaffes.  They are now just interested delving into the experiences of the beat generation.

As for me, I will continue, worship or not, to record my experiences in my way, too.  And perhaps, just perhaps, I'll encounter forgiving readers as well.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Crushed, this time in print

Last night I went to my MFA workshop after three weeks, due to a spring break/professor was on a book tour hiatus. It’s only beginning to dawn on me how terribly things went.

I was in the bubble this week, except for in this class the prof (B) calls it “the cone of silence.”  I prefer the bubble, so I am sticking with that.

I was uncomfortable with the piece I submitted from the start.  I just had a vague bad feeling about it—partially because I used up all of my more polished material in the fall workshop, and also because I just instinctively knew B wouldn’t like it.

Last night, I was a little heady because on the positive side he spoke highly of my "carefully modulated rhinous" which I thought sounded impressive, even if I had no idea what it meant. Today, I looked at his printed evaluation and discovered that, of course, he was impressed  by my wryness which made a lot more sense, but seeing the rest of his critique in print made things look much more grave than they did during the banter of workshop.

The piece in question was a more polished version of the gallery incident I wrote about in this forum while it was happening.  I fleshed out the characters a bit, particularly Lisa and The Curator.  But I should probably stop writing at this point and check my notes, as I have already committed a faux pas.  My signature Capitalization of Important Ideas has been a festering issue ever since I started going to workshop.  Last night, it was called “kittenish” and I was advised that caps “are not inherently funny” and that Salinger was the only one who could get away with it, and even then in just small doses. It’s been such an issue I am probably just going to abandon the practice. According to my feedback, I have much bigger worries.

Despite my misgivings, I submitted the piece anyway because it is/was meant to be the title piece for the manuscript I am/was working on called Not Gallery Quality: An Exhibit of Sketchy Composure. Which, is a reference to my unorthodox and unpolished lifestyle and my resulting madcap adventures. I wanted honest feedback and I did/do want to improve it. To B’s eyes, the piece came off as “pretentious” and he said that if I wanted to be funny I had to work on self depreciating humor.  The trouble is, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time, know that that is virtually all I do.  As I mentioned prior, I wanted constructive feedback, but right now I’m feeling like all I happened was I got served notice that capital letters aren't funny and a lecture on having a bad attitude.  He even alluded to me not being a good role model to my daughter by defending myself to The Curator, I mean the curator.

I have no cohesive ending for this post.  Nothing witty or wise, no silver lining.  I guess the takeaway here is that art of all kinds has a dark, subjective side and also that we all have bad days and today is one of mine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Road Tripping on Tuesday

“I kind of feel sorry for him,” K said.

The remark took me by surprise.  Our Great American Road Trip course has been following the real life adventures of literary icon Michael Crichton as it unfolds in his autobiographical page-turner, Travels.  We’ve followed Crichton into the depths of the sea, to the top of Kilimanjaro, and across a Pakistani landslide.  We trekked along side him into the Rwandan jungle and the Mayan pyramids. And I’m not even sure I’ve adequately covered the highlights.  In short, this guy was a living, breathing issue of National Geographic. Personally, I have vacillated among a range of responses: envy, most certainly, disbelief, a desire to retrace his itinerary….but pity? No, that never occurred to me.

K—and as it happened, several of his cohorts, were of the opinion that Crichton’s high-octane adventures were a sign of discontent, of not being comfortable with himself or his life.  They saw him as a thrill-seeking high chaser.  Others, such as the writer below, were just incredulous:

For the most part, though, the students were more excited b Crichton than Steinbeck.  They found him "more modern," and many were really interested in the opening segment, Medical Days, where Crichton recounts his experiences studying at, and ultimately quitting Harvard Medical School: 

When I was developing the course, I was really excited by the idea of the students creating “trip journals” as a response to each book, but I wasn’t sure how they would respond.  Each trip journal is to contain:

·       Questions for each reading (they have to come each day with 3 discussion topics)
·       3 personal reflections
·       1 formal essay (based on one of your reflection pieces)

Two of the following:

·       artistic response (such as themed journal cover, sketch, or other artistic element)
·       souvenirs (“photos” from the internet, maps, brochures, etc.)
·       video or multimedia response
·       Three scholarly articles with one page summary
·       Two scholarly articles and two draft pages (for their final 12 page paper)

I think literature is most valuable when it is personal; when it's an interaction between a per on and pages.   It is the job of a student to make meaning--in all disciplines, really, but especially in literature.  That meaning might come from connections to personal events, links to interesting concepts from other disciplines or literature, or trough a keen imagination.  I wanted the trip journals to allow room for students to make meaning on their own terms, in their own way.  I couldn’t be any more pleased with the journals thus far.
This student mapped and scrapbooked key events

This guy made travel brochures from some of Crichton's destinations

This person drew flags from everywhere Crichton went.

But the experience goes beyond just making meaning for the sake of enjoying a good read.  I see my students internalizing ideas, concepts and lessons that they, themselves forwarded in class discussions.  For instance, M drew a connection from an observation Steinbeck made about how people tend to think their own lives, homes, ideas, etc. are superior to everyone else's to the concept of ethnocentrism, which he had just learned about in his Communications course.  He shared the idea in class an then another student picked up on it as part of a personal reflection:

How do you "make meaning" when you read?  What options would you choose for your trip journal if you were in our class? Do you think Crichton was foolhardy or adventurous?  I know I've been gone awhile, but talk back to me...I've missed our online class!

(note: The Great American Road Trip literature series is typically a Friday Feature this semester.  However, spring break and life events derailed my entire blogging schedule. This Tuesday post is meant as a show of good faith that I am still here!)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

An Art Show AKA Why I Haven't Posted in a Week

So I have been absent longer than I hoped.  And for the first time this semester, I failed to post my Friday Feature.  Can we view it as my free skip for the semester and call it all good?  Thanks.  Because it is that ragged week before spring break when campus begins looking like a scene from The Walking Dead (I don’t watch the show, but when I walk in on family members who do, I see a lot of trudging and hear guttural utterances that sound, to the untrained ear, a bit like my students). 

The source of my distraction is only ever so tenuously connected to campus events—and only in the sense that I must keep things humming there while I install an art show and create about a third of the work to be displayed therein. 

I mentioned in a late summer post that I missed my art, missed it terribly, and may even want to teach it again, in some manner.  Although it seems likely that I may never teach art again in an academic setting, a new and exciting venue has opened for me to pursue the arts in a vitally crucial and historically ignored context: the church.

I go to an offbeat church,  In fact, a coffee shop conversation about my church, four hours ago when I began this post went something like this:

Me: "I go to a very exciting and unique church. We have doctors, NASA scientists, homeless people and drug addicts.
Other Guy: "Oh, so you're Unitarian?"
Me: "Um, no. Just really accepting and welcoming. It's a community church"
Other Guy: "So what denomination?"
Me: "We defy denominational labels."
Other Guy: nodding approval "I'd sign off on that."

It’s all true—and crazy, and awkward, and exhilarating in a way you can’t imagine.  It’s also a perfect place to launch an arts program.  And so we are.  In an offbeat, evolving, and chaotic sort of way.

We have an art show opening on Friday.  As in, 45.75 hours from right now.  I don’t know how many pieces we’ll have, and none of the installation has begun.  But the pieces I do have range from stunning to, um, quirky and The Baker is catering so it will be a wonderful time.

I am posting “sneak peeks” on facebook—little snippets of works to sort of whet artistic appetites, and I will share them here, now, although I have to just include iPhone snapshots because there is clearly no time for editing.

Our theme is “Just Listen,” and here’s a preview of how our artists are interpreting it:

And a catering preview:

Baby Croissants!!

Exciting times, these.  I will pop in with a brief update as the show progresses.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Facebook Changed its Gender Options. As a Christian Woman, Here's Why I Care.

“I’m going with woman.” Kid One said.

“Hmmm…every time I see it, I end up going the other way,” I mused.

“I’m going to have to pay more attention,” the Other Kid said, “I didn’t even know this was a thing.”

The “thing,” was one of those conversations (I assume) most of us have had: was that retail worker/waitress/pedestrian a man or a woman?

Perhaps my confidence in the universality of this issue stems from the infamous Saturday Night Live sketches concerning the ambiguous identity of “Pat.” I assume the sketch is funny because we all have “Pats” in our lives, and no one knows what to do about it.

Our particular gender bender conversation coincided with the development late last week wherein facebook added over 50 gender options beyond the simple M/F construct with which we’re all familiar ( there’s now anywhere from 51-58, depending on where you get your news).

But wait…what did I just say, up there? The construct “with which we’re all familiar.”  Pretty cozy, exclusive language, don’t you think?  And it flew effortlessly from my fingers and on to the screen. I suspect it’s not too bold an assumption that the phrasing flew right past my regular readership, too.  Thankfully, for most of us gender identity can be communicated by a simple check of a box.  Nice, neat, normal.

But what about those who live outside the male/female boxes?  Each one of the 50-plus gender options represents not just a person but an entire group of people who live in the margins, literally outside the boxes.  People who, by accident of birth or twist of psychology have no way to concisely communicate their most basic human experience. 

It seems interesting to me that we have hundreds of thousands of people living in a genetic or psychological no man’s land and most of us respond by pointing and laughing from the safety of our boxes.

As a Christian, I believe it’s the people outside the familiar boxes of normal living that should be our main focus.  Not with the goal to changing them, sorting them out, or otherwise sanitizing them, but to simply listen, learn, and love.

So go ahead: be curious.  What’s inter sex?  What does it mean to be gender fluid?  What’s a transwoman? 

Ask the questions. Would a pangenger person be welcome in my church? At my dinner table?

Listen to the answers. Open your heart. Begin the dialogue.


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