Monday, January 21, 2008

An Issue of Issues

Kids need to be surrounded by good literature.

My husband and I began our family firmly committed to this shared foundational belief.

Accordingly, our children have grown up in a veritable sea of printed matter. Not only did we both bring every Little Golden Book either of us ever owned into our union, we fervently undertook acquisitions for the Davis Family Library before we even had furniture.

To my knowledge, neither of us has ever sold a single college textbook, a fact which in itself represents the bulk of our educational shelves, considering my husband has, like, 3 bachelor’s degrees and an MBA, and I’m working on my masters. (Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my daughter just put Don Quixote on ebay.)

In early marriage we were members of book-of-the month clubs—yes, plural—the proceedings of which we read from lawn chairs in our aforementioned unfurnished apartment.

When our daughter was born, we showered her with chunky books, waterproof tubby books, and, as she grew, pop-ups and books with tapes.

Even our son, the poorly read black sheep of a fellow who only reads under the duress of an assigned book report, boasts numerous (and pristine) tomes. He’ll tell you he reads—and, who am I to say, maybe he does, at say, 3 AM, or perhaps in the bathroom.
Our personal collection numbers safely in the thousands, with our holdings typically supplemented by any number of grossly overdue library materials, but we won’t go into that. Off hand, I don’t really know how many book cases we have in the house, but we snatched up another one on sale at Target last week.

And did I ever mention our penchant to subscribe to magazines?

I’ve thought on occasion—and shared freely in this forum—that our magazine situation might be a tad out of control. At least, if you think it’s an issue to have every nook and cranny stuffed with periodicals. Personally, I find it comforting to have a wealth of knowledge right at my fingertips no matter where I am in the home.

Why, consider what happened to my husband one fateful day last spring, when he volunteered to cover an hour of two of our daughter’s babysitting shift. Seemed like a simple sort of thing—until I picked him up, and found him pale and off kilter.

“I forgot my book,” he lamented, “and there wasn’t anything at all to read in that house—nothing.”

“Don’t be silly,” I told him, knowing the mother was a teacher. “There must have been something.”

“Well, sort of,” he admitted, gasping something about a Billy Graham coffee table picture book.

If you’ve ever seen the shaken, pasty pall of a man deprived of meaty literature, you, too would regard a ready stash of printed matter as a medical necessity. (And I don’t mean to elude here that we don’t find Billy Graham meaty—it’s just that it was, well, a picture book.)

However, recent events have caused me to wonder if it’s time for a purge. See, I like a neat and tidy appearance around the home, and, although you can totally decorate with books, the look just doesn’t translate with magazines. They’re spilling out of every conceivable basket, end table, and magazine rack in the house—and that’s after I scooped some of the older ones into a stray laundry basket and hid them in the attic.

Worse, I’m now having some organizational trouble and it occurs to me that I might need the space for, say, file folders, or clear, labled containers like the moms in the magazines use.

I spent the better part of a day last week and a good chunk of the day before that searching though stacks of magazines for my son’s missing school pictures. When I failed to find them where they were supposed to be, I figured they must have gotten caught up in some kind of emergency coffee table sweep and stashed in a basket. I kept thumbing through the stacks, expecting at any moment to see my son’s face grinning back at me from the glossy pages of a National Geographic or Smithsonian.

As regular readers might remember, I tend to get obsessive and weird when things go missing. Adding to my trouble was the fact that every place I looked for the pictures, I discovered the absence of more and more things that weren’t where I expected.

So I decided it might be time to gather up all the magazines and you, know, see what we’re really dealing with. So I emptied all the baskets and gathered up all the stray piles and lined them up on the countertop in my studio area. Here’s what we have, minus the contents of the laundry basket, which have either become deeply engulfed within the attic or fell victim to foul play. Here's an aerial view:
For a few lucid moments, I thought about recycling the whole thing and starting fresh. Then I knew I’d really need to read them before I could part with them in good conscious. After making it through 1.5 issues of National Wildlife in about the same number of hours, I became discouraged with the plan. Besides, the mailman came while I was reading, and now I’ve got three more magazines in my pile.

At that point, I realized that today it’s just my son’s picture that’s missing, but if this thing goes unchecked, maybe one day I won’t be able to find him. That would take the concept of surrounding the kids with literature to the ever-soaring heights of my hastily stacked periodicals.

It could be that this is one of those "less is more" cases, but I think I'll err on the side of good literary caution and just see if Target is having another sale. I’m sure I can squeeze a new bookcase in somewhere.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's All in the Spin

Six weeks. The words have been running in a constant loop through my thoughts for, well, the past five weeks.

My first semester of masters work ended five weeks and one day ago, after thousands of pages of reading, approximately 24,243 words worth of papers, and couple of last minute saves--including an emergency real-time edit of a presentation in progress (an offhanded comment by a professor exposed a critical misreading of a piece of literature as a classmate and I made our way to the podium to present the merits of said piece. Good thing I wore my hip waders and packed a shovel that day...)

Six glorious weeks between the end of my fall semester and the beginning of the spring term seemed like a Christmas gift that could best the entire contents of Santa's sleigh.

Six weeks! At first, the words swelled in my head like the Hallelujah Chorus. Every morning when I woke up, it seemed like the entire Boys Choir of Harlem sang out the refrain, complete with the backing if the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

No papers!

No research!

No vital up-or-downloads!

No Don Quixote!

You'd think that the last thing I'd want to do during this soul-cleansing time of catharsis would be to write. But write, I did. First, for the newspaper--that's right, I remembered, I used to get paid to write. And then, for my sadly neglected but dearly beloved YA fiction venture, as appeared in my previous post. Yes, I remembered, writing is beautiful, when you write what you love.

But it was more than the joy of writing for profit and pleasure that resonated in between the notes of my Ode to Freedom. There have been so many other facets of my hijacked life that I've been able to resuscitate, such as warm, homemade meals on our dinner table: Tuscan chicken, stromboli, risotto, pots and pots of minestrone--tonight we're having lasagna.

Then there's the world of friends and entertaining, into which I wholeheartedly delved one evening just prior to Christmas. Can you imagine ending a meal for 6 adults and 13 children around a chocolate fountain? I can, and the memories are precious.

Oh, and I can't neglect to mention the nearly lost art of reading for pleasure. That book that's been sitting on my must-read list for the past 6 months? Read it, and relished every word like a the last bite of a Hershey's Special Dark bar.

Looking back, it's kind of hard to believe the amount of things I've packed in around Christmas and a week-long New Year's trip to Pennsylvania. Those professional headshots? Done. Undecorating from Christmas and redecorating for winter? Done. Rearranging most of the major furniture in the house? Done. Book signings and school visits? Done. Done.
(See, here I am looking a little more authorly than I usually do, toting around my stuffed tiger):
Maybe all this activity is because that looping refrain in my head morphed into more of a cadence. The Boys Choir moved out last week, making way for The Corporal. The Corporal is intimately aware of the passage of time, and the parameters of the upcoming mission. Spring '08, I believe they call it. The Corporal is big into belting out marching orders, repeating the whole six week loop with a decidedly do-or-die flair.

The Corporal has me shooting off emails to my friends, informing them that it's now or never if they want to get that lunch, or catch up over coffee. The Corporal rides me hard if I sit, staring blankly, as I'm prone to do when overwhelmed. Don't just sit there, he barks, Six weeks, six weeks, that's all you have, six weeks. The Corporal's responsible for all references to the commencement of my studies sounding like the musings of one reporting for a court-appointed prison term, or beginning treatment in an Iron Lung.

Bad news is, an email from Dr P, a Spring '08 Sergent--er, professor, has now sent even The Corporal packing. Dr. P is teaching this pesky one credit "lab" --a "gimme" my son would call it. In the grand scheme of everything else I've signed up for, I didn't view the lab as anything worth much worry. Something about visiting classrooms. No problem.

Dr. P was kind enough to send her syllabus along early. I got bleary-eyed somewhere around page three, and a few paragraphs after that The Corporal's cadence morphed into a dirge.

Among other things, the syllabus outlined various tasks I am to complete during the course of no less than 15 visits to a local school where I will apparently become something of a fixture. These tasks range in complexity and scope. During the course of my tenure, I'll be expected to participate in parent conferences, attend extra-curricular events, observe student hallway interactions, and, perhaps, attend a PTA meeting. I will also be required to conduct interviews with teachers, substitutes, and--I'm not even embellishing here--bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors. Essentially, I'll be examining the school from the ground up. At this point in my reading, the drone of the mourners silenced even The Corporal's most rousing calls.

The worst of it? I'm not even sure I want to teach, at least not in the full-time, public-school capacity.

See, I am, at once, an appreciative but reluctant student. I didn't really set out to return to school full time. Oh, I always intended to get my masters degree someday...after the kids were out of the house, and I got bored with all of my other pursuits. It's just that seeds of restlessness and dissatisfaction began to sprout in the drear, dank sunlessness of last winter, and one blustery February afternoon found me wandering aimlessly around the campus where I now attend. I thought I might pick up a catalogue, browse some selections, and sign up for a course or two; something to spark some new thoughts, that sort of thing.

I left that day with an offer for a full ride.

Suddenly, someday was upon me.

Some days I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity. Other days, I'm simply overwhelmed.

I even tried to quit once, when it looked like the timing of certain course offerings were going to tip life too far out of balance, with non-stop course work all summer long. The prof I work for wouldn't hear of it, and is teaching me the ill-timed course herself, just her and me. How could I quit, in the face of that kind of confidence and commitment to my success?

The trouble is, I'm a writer, and although this program will give me a masters degree in English, it's also a teaching program. I have a love-hate relationship with teaching. I love being with students. I love discussing deep topics, engaging them in life and learning. But I think it's a little like being a grandparent--it's great as a part time gig.

I love swooping in as a substitute, keeping things spick and span like an educational Mary Poppins--and flying away on my umbrella when the day is done. I love going into classrooms as a special guest, sharing my novels with students, listening to their questions and interpretations of my work, and inspiring them toward their own aspirations. Go in, stir things up a bit, go home. In and out.

Real teaching kind of looks like the anti-writing from where I'm sitting. Grading papers? No, thanks. Calling parents? I don't even call my friends! Attending staff development sessions? Arsenic seems like a more expedient way to go.

Which is why all this business about interviewing safety guards and grading surplus tests really packed a punch. I'm a writer, darn it, a writer. A writer who doesn't go to her own kids' PTA meetings because she'd rather be home, playing with them. I awoke this morning to the lamentation of the mourners. Six weeks, almost gone, six weeks, moving on.

Writers don't interview lunch ladies, I told myself. They don't do grunt work for teachers. They don't rove up and down hallways listening to students gripe, I insisted.

About this point, the journalist in me kicks in. I'm picturing myself walking all over the school with my digital voice recorder and notebook, making copious notes in hallways. We call that "getting the story."

Then it hits me. I write for teens, and I've been given an all access pass to their daily stomping grounds. This is research at it's best! I'm a writer, darn it, and I'm going in.

Someone had better call VH 1 and find out where the Spin Doctors are now, because I think I'm going to need them to pick up the refrain. It goes something like:

One week until I begin research on my upcoming novel!


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