Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This Week

My school doesn't break until the week before Easter*, so I've been biting my nails as I wait for some time off. Just kidding. I haven't been biting my nails; I've been biting off people's heads. Because I just can't anymore. Literally, I can't even. When Easter falls this late and the break falls this late (just like when any number of insignificant other things happen, including but not limited to my not eating enough), I'm Crankypants McGee.

*We've decided that separation of church and state ain't no thing, yo. Breaking after the 3rd quarter is for suckas. Or, you know. For many, many people in academia.

But anyway, I'm not supposed to be anywhere today. So I'm in my sweat pants, and I DO NOT look like this:

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But this is the couch next to me:

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The Jenny Offill book is wishful thinking. There are two ahead of her in line.
I couldn't sleep, so I spent the hours of 1:30 AM to 4:30 AM planning. I'm sure you think this is super nerdy and gross, but in Me World, quiet time to plan one's week is rare and special. When I'm all planned out I'm uber happy. It means I don't have to hold all that worry in my head. In fact, I think the reason I couldn't sleep last night was that I had been writing a new story and making a list of things to do (in my head) as I drove home from LA, and I was so excited to write it all down so I could start doing.

It worked out. The dog missed me while I was in LA and my being up last night gave him three prime hours to stare at me, uninterrupted. His undying affection for me and me only is the topic for another post.

Speaking of love, it's also my 14th wedding anniversary today.

Yes, on Tax Day.

Here's what I'm doing this week:

Reading Bonnie ZoBell's Something Happened Here and Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine, both for reviews. I'm excited about each. I'm even more excited that I have days at home to read. If I have time, I might sneak a peek at Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, mostly because I'm dying of curiosity and FOMO.

Listening to Dubliners by James Joyce while I drive around in my car. I'll be in Dublin this summer, so when I can I'm trying to fit in some related literature. Unfortunately I bought the audiobook when I was on the road yesterday so I made the critical mistake of not listening to the voice-over artist's voice before I downloaded it. He has a ssss in his letters that makes me want to tear my skin off, so I might be listening to this one in small chunks. Even though so far I like the stories.

Watching The Good Wife, RuPaul's Drag Race, and all those episodes of Chopped on my DVR. And maybe some Law and Order when I need a little murdery background noise.

Making everyone I know read Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams. When I picked it to review for Bookslut, I had no idea how big a sensation it was going to become. Leslie Jamison is the new it girl, and she deserves every moment of it. I can't stop thinking about that book.

Spending my time with the monkeys. At home. We have a week free of commitments, mostly, and this morning Henry told me that he has plans to not wear his pants very often. I support this, as it coincides nicely with my desire to sit on the couch, write words, and pause only to nap or eat.





Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Not-Brutal Realities

Warning: old lady soapbox post.

I'm friends with a bunch of my former students on Facebook. This has vastly improved my view about teaching. Before social media, teachers didn't always get to see what happened after our charges left the nest. Now it's easy to keep in touch and watch my former students grow into full-fledged adults.

Sometimes this means my feed has a lot of pictures of sorority squatting and questionable costume choices. But you know? Nobody is my responsibility once they graduate out... so God bless 'em (and that's why we have the 'I don't want to see this' button.) Be young. Have at it.

Yesterday, a listicle called 17 Brutal Realities of Being a College Student in 2014 started making the rounds among my former AP kids, each now at different universities.  So I clicked on it to read it. As one does. The producer (Thoughtcatalog uses this label rather than writer, as best I can tell) of this article has--I'm sure--a different take on college than 30-something awkward me.

I thought I'd offer my own thoughts:

THE 17 OTHER REALITIES

1. College doesn't have to be the best time of your life. If you're beating yourself up because it isn't, know this: no one time in your life has to be the best time of your life just because it was for someone else. You know that quote that a billion people have posted on Pinterest? The one that says, What messes us up is the picture in our head of how it's supposed to be? That. And it will be true about everything you do for the rest of your ever. Love. Marriage. Babies. Work. You can only be you and that means you can only have your highs and lows. If college sucks, guess what? Something else will be better.

My amazing college. My time there was not the best time of my life.

2. There are a lot of distractions. But you have the power to remove all of them. If you really want something bad enough--a grade, an education, a career, a relationship--you will find a way to turn off the noise. If you can't find a way to do that, you're probably not ready or didn't really mean that much to you. What I mean is this: Tumblr isn't going to keep you from finishing papers or graduating unless you let it.

3. Nobody has any idea what they are doing. The secret is out. We're all faking it. This doesn't stop after college. Try to be the person now that you want to be later, and the "doing" part of your day will start to make sense. Set a goal. Focus yourself. Work hard. Show other people you care about them. That's the best anyone can do.

4. Living frugally will give you perspective. Even if that perspective is about not wanting to eat poorly and share space with other humans, it will be valuable. Sometimes the lesson you learn is about what you don't want.

5. As difficult as this job market is, having a college degree gives you access to so much more than if you don't have one. Yes, it's hard to get a job. Yes, it sucks. But it won't always suck. You want to come out on the other side of this recession with an education. It will always be harder to find work if you don't have a college degree. And guess what? If you earn a degree, nobody can ever take that away. The years will pass either way and you can either learn or not. But they will damn sure pass. Your degree might be in something you don't choose to pursue, eventually. But having it is like leveling up in life.

6. Financial aid is there for those who want it. It can be a better deal to invest in yourself for the short term so you can reap the benefits for the rest of your life.

7. If you don't like how much you're complaining, stop. Chances are that other people don't enjoy the negativity, either, especially if you're not taking action to change the things you don't like. But this doesn't mean that college won't come with challenges. You are meant to struggle. Even things like figuring out how to wake yourself up early and budget your time and study and decide just how much fun you're going to have--those are all things you're supposed to learn in college. You don't want anyone telling you what to do. You want to find your own rhythms. Your own values. So give yourself a break. You're learning how to be Future You.

8. College is a good opportunity to learn the difference between "free resources on the internet" and what's inside books. There is one. If you can Google something easily, so can the rest of the world. Learning about a topic--really learning--requires more than a few click-throughs. Sometimes it means paying for resources. Sometimes it means reading boring stuff. But I promise you the people who can make themselves read boring things come out ahead of those who look for the easy out. And often that stuff in books will change who you are as a person--in a good way. Because it's harder to get your words into a book than to put them on the internet. And not all information is equal. Figuring that out makes you discerning. That will be important, later.

9. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince had this one right. Parents just don't understand. But your parents' parents didn't understand them, either.  Nor did your grandparents' parents. Circle of life. And cell phones, internet, anything you want that costs money--if you work hard and earn, it's not off limits to you. Part of what you learn in college is how to sacrifice to get the things that you need and want.

10. Hopefully eating all that Ramen teaches you that you want more out of life than just Ramen.

11. The reason people talk so much about traveling abroad in college is that it only gets harder to do once you're older. You'll have a job. Maybe a family. Maybe a mortgage. It just gets more complicated. But this also doesn't mean you have to go when you're in school. Do what works for you. Stop letting yourself feel obligated by what other people tell you. Maybe it doesn't work for you to travel in college. You'll find a way to do it later if it's something you really want. It will require more sacrifice, that's all.

12. Unpaid internships: Yep. We're still doing that. Sometimes you have to show people that you're worth hiring before they will pay you to do a task. Sometimes you have to work really hard at something only because you know it will get you to another level. And sometimes you have to do things you don't like and nobody will pay you for them. Adulthood.

13. You have to create the space you want to live in. This is true for your dorm room, your house, and your head.

14. Being a professor is not a cushy job. Jobs in education can be hard work for little recognition. But the world will always need teachers. If you have a passion for something and if you can make sacrifices so that others can learn, you should do it. Opportunities present themselves to people who work hard and who are kind. Always.

15. The world is full of bad food. As an adult, it's part of your job to figure out if you want to eat it and maybe not be so healthy, or if you don't want to eat it and maybe live a little longer. Choices are amazing. But they always have consequences.

16. College--like all school--teaches you how to learn. You will not directly apply most things you learn in school in your real life. You just won't. If someone told you that you were going to use everything you ever learned in school, that was a lie. But if you want to be successful--more successful than not--you have to be good at learning. And you have to keep doing it. So you might not have someone tell you to research and write an essay. But you will--at some point--have an opportunity to present something that you care about to others. And being able to support your opinion intelligently? And being able to write persuasively? Those are gold in Adultland.

17. Nostalgia is real. You will always remember things that were positive and miss those moments. But after college there will be a lot of things you're glad to let go. You don't have to be or feel anything right now just because you're in school. Just like how you don't have to be or feel anything anyone else says for the rest of your life. Think about what matters to you. Put your time into that. Anything that doesn't bring you joy? Stop giving it your attention. All you can do is make the best decisions you can make for this moment. And yes, what you want will change. But you don't have to feel bad about it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Accountability

From my Google Hangout log, it would appear I don't switch up my company a lot. Also, I guess you have to wear turquoise to be in my writing group?

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Man. Science. Thank goodness for 2014, because technology is saving me by keeping me connected. Not everything about my life is beans right now (yep, still trying to make beans happen...) but one thing that I enjoy wholeheartedly is my tiny writing group with these ladies. We chat online using Google Hangout once every other week. On the off weeks, one of us sends pages. That works out to each of us sending pages every six weeks. How cool is it that I can have a writers' group in my house in my sweat pants? It's amazing, is all I'm saying. We've been doing this since about January and I already find myself wondering how many days it is to the next one all the time.

I'm pretty busy with reviewing and, you know, m'full time job, but this is great for the other aspects of my writing. Having a writing group makes me stop to make time to write short fiction, too, so I'll have something to share when it's my turn. The six week deadline doesn't sneak up on me too soon, and so far I've been able to fit it right into my insane schedule of responsibilities.

Today my work was on the table, which still makes me just a tad nervous. Even though I knew I was in good hands with these ladies, I sat down at my computer in the minutes before and triple checked that I had paper, a pen, a copy of my story... I suppose I was looking for security in having the right office supplies. (I'm still working at my card table in the corner. Loving the space; hating how much it shakes.)

It was so good.

I had them read a story today that was probably the most personal thing I've ever written. It was fiction, but the kind of fiction that my friend Jenn-Anne says has the heat of truth underneath it. The kind that I can probably never send out to get published, honestly. But the kind that I had to write. And pushing myself to get things on the page that I'd never say or that I never would have allowed myself the freedom to write even a couple of years ago made my work better. I could feel it.

No, I'm not sharing it here. I'm sorry. And I mean it about not submitting it. But I have the kind of job where I just have to know that there's a line, and some things can't be out in the world.

But as much as it challenged me to write with complete honesty, today's workshop pushed me to be ten times better. I've known for weeks that I found my people (heck, I think I've known what kind of people these ladies were to me since early on in my MFA program), but being in a group that's such a good fit feels like it will push me to continue to stretch myself. Today I really felt that in practice. And I was reminded of dancing with other, better dancers, or creating curriculum with other, better teachers. The back and forth of a good group of people who want to help you improve and create your best work is invigorating. I lurve that.

Also, I don't mind hearing Faye pronounce the word dawg in her New York accent.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Solo Sunday in SF

Sunday I drove to San Francisco. Alone. Just because. No real reason other than me wanting to see things I haven't seen and wanting to be somewhere other than my couch for the day.

Between the time change and my insomnia, I was out the door early and had the road entirely to myself. I pressed play on Marissa Pessl's Night Film and cruised. Since I was in the city pretty early, I took a little hike (emphasis on little more than hike) down the Lands End trail to the ocean. It was beautiful and peaceful and silent. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the entrance to the bay are stunning.

I was having a great time until I realized that maybe being alone in the woods at the bottom of a steep trail wasn't the best plan. I turned around and hightailed my patoot back up the hill to the Legion of Honor, where I'd parked. About ten steps up, I looked at the steep climb and remembered some things: I live somewhere flat; I am not super active; I have basically the lung capacity of a small lemur. So I was already all 'fraidy and then I was all gaspy from the not being fit, and by the time I made it back up to my car I felt like I'd exerted enough energy for a whole week. Ta-da, PDawg.

So that was enough exercise. Please, someone, go back to San Francisco with me and hike this trail for real so I can enjoy the views without the constant fear of Stabby McRaperson jumping out of the thick brush to attack me and then toss me down into the sea.

After that jaunt I drove over the de Young to see the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit. It's a smaller exhibit than some of the others I've seen there, but I was looking forward to seeing her work. And since I was one of the first people in the museum, I felt like I had that all to myself too. You know those benches in the middle of the gallery that nobody uses? I could actually sit on them--just sit--and look at paintings for as long as I wanted to with nobody standing in front of me. Bliss.

Best thing about the G.O. exhibit: Seeing iconic images close up. Learning more about her work, including the impact of her husband's photography. I had no idea that his photographs affected the development of her work, as well as how it was collectively received when she first showed it. It was really interesting to see the different phases of her art in a collection, too.

Best thing about the G.O. exhibit #2: The giggling old ladies in front of the most yonic paintings.

I just enjoyed myself at the museum so much. I wandered. Stared at whatever I wanted to stare at. Thought about what a cool thing it is to have a creative impulse. And I got that thing again where I just felt in awe of a piece of art because someone remarkable painted it. I dorked out over being that close to paintings I've seen on prints and calendars for years and years.

After I left the museum, I spent some more time dawdling near the Music Concourse, watching people do T'ai Chi and just enjoying the sun. Please, Lord, let me be the kind of old person someday who wants to move my body, and does not give a single fuck about doing so in a public place. Rock on, old people of Golden Gate Park. From the park I drove over to Trouble Coffee. Home of the toast, if you read that great essay on Pacific Standard. I wanted to stop, but the place was packed and there was no parking to be found. So I looped back around by Ocean Beach and then headed over to meet my friend Pia.

Pia took me to lunch at Park Tavern right next to Washington Square Park. We ate all the pancakes. And we ate all the deviled eggs. And we drank mimosas because we are friggin' ladies. It was divine. Pia had a luxurious and rare day away from her little one and I got to pretend that I was a person who goes places and does things. Just too good for words. She walked me over to City Lights bookstore, I bought some new books, and we parted ways. Then I headed to the Mission to meet up with my friend Megan for another drink at Beretta.

Megan and I shot the breeze and I tried a new tequila (mmm!) and eventually she needed to take off. I spent a little bit more time checking out the Mission area. I hadn't ever seen much of it before. But I found 826 Valencia and Dolores Park. And really, a whole lot of everything. More wandering. More just being happy to be somewhere, seeing things.

The hours flew by. I'm such a cliché, and I don't even care. I'm lucky I live so close to such a remarkable place.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Blooms, Shakes & Blocks

If well-behaved nine year olds had frat houses, they would look something like my house right now. I came home this afternoon to Henry in his sweat pants in the living room, and pages of math homework strewn from the couch to the front door. He was surrounded by clothes he'd taken off after school, stuffed animals and blanket, some National Geographic Kids magazines and an open Harry Potter book. He was balanced atop his bean bag chair on top of the couch, and he was using a nubby pencil to cross some things off in his binder. I felt like I was interrupting something personal.

The air smelled vaguely like peanut butter and little boy socks.

It's spring even though it's too early to really be spring and we never had a winter. The kids have taken to leaving the back door open each afternoon so the cats can wander out and gnaw on the fresh grass in the backyard, and today when I went out to retrieve Twinkle, I noticed that my peach tree is already blooming.

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That right there is jam.

I had a busy day. I'm trying to spend more time with my grandparents when my life gets hectic and stressful; I always feel better after I see them. I think because of this I've seen grandparents on both sides on the same day two weeks in a row. Work life has been kind of tense. I visited Grandpa near my school on a break today and then stopped off to see Grandma in her convalescent home after work. I'm finding that these regular connections pull me out of my anxiousness about things that don't really matter. It was good to see everyone and catch up. And just for good measure, I decided to join my mom and dad for ice cream tonight. My other grandma was going to be there (with Grandpa, who I saw this afternoon--are you confused yet?) and I figured I'd round out my visits with parents and complete the grandparent set. I'm so lucky that everyone lives close.

And the kids certainly didn't mind round two of ice cream at Leatherby's, a local creamery. That's right, I took my children to the same ice cream restaurant two nights in a row. No shame. Yesterday was Henry's birthday and he chose it for dinner. Tonight was a fund-raiser for their school and my mom wanted to take them there again. So yeah. We did that. And I had my second chocolate shake in as many days. All ice cream errday.

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Making short work of his birthday shake.

Henry has been slightly emotional about this birthday this year. Last night after dinner, we came home and it was pretty much time for bed. I found him in his room waiting for me with a stern look, and the instant I asked him about it he did a big gaspy breath that cracked. He burst into tears. He had been holding on to an idea that being nine meant he was too old for a few things he loved to do. We had a talk; we sorted it out. It was fine. But I think it was the first time that he thought about getting older. You'd think that would come later than nine. Apparently not in this house.

All is not lost, though. He spent all of his free time tonight (pre- and post- milkshake) in the middle of a giant pile of Legos. He was sad that we had to leave, even when he knew he was getting ice cream out of the deal. I can't say it bothers me too much to see the mess when he's in the middle of it, building, or even that he needed his mom last night. I kind of love it when he's still a little kid.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Abstruse


I've never spent much time thinking about Ash Wednesday before. Lent, yes. Shrove Tuesday pancake dinners, sure. (Anything in the church bulletin was studied carefully during the last ten minutes of every sermon during my preteen years.) But Ash Wednesday didn't feature as prominently in my Methodist upbringing as it does in other variations of Christianity. And as I grew older I wandered toward churches with looser ties to mainstream historical denominations, and I also wandered farther away from the kind of traditions that mark a liturgical year.

Those ceremonial elements of church interest me more, though, the older I get. I started to feel like lack of denomination meant detachment, not being rooted in history, or in traditions as a safe places to ground the too-big feelings. In churches with shallow roots, I began to miss the very things I'd dismissed as stuffy when I was a kid. Hard wooden pews. Stained glass. The smell of a hymnal or old building and the groan of an organ. And rituals. Rituals give us chances to mark time, but they also give us words when words fail. I come back to that idea now as a result of my academics, actually. My faith now wants to be a mix of history and stories and that smell of old books. Giving love, asking questions, feeling compassion. And marking joy and loss with tradition.

I think for that reason, I liked the tension in Sara Miles' memoir, City of God: Faith in the Streets. Miles is a pastor in an Episcopalian church in the Mission District of San Francisco. The book focuses on her experiences over a single day--Ash Wednesday in 2012--as she takes ashes to the people on the streets. As I said in my review last month for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Miles writes with refreshing honesty about her faith. For her, Ash Wednesday is about faith in messy and imperfect bodies. She questions even the ceremonial act she undertakes, and her own ability to do that second most important commandment: love her neighbor.

Yesterday Henry wanted to know about Ash Wednesday on the way to school. Today is his birthday, so he saw the holiday on the calendar. Five minutes and two miles isn't long enough to explain liturgical seasons and Lent and references to sin and the reminder from Genesis that we will all return to dust. It took K an hour or so to walk me through the Catholic version before I wrote the review, and I'm still driving around a copy of Catholicism for Dummies in my car. (For red light Vatican reference emergencies.) Faith, and the ceremony surrounding it, is complicated. Abstruse was the word I came to, when pushed by my editor to move away from "complex." If your reference point was Facebook, you might think that Lent meant forced dieting, a spring kick-start of carb and soda and curse word restriction, rather than a period of solemn atonement. Or maybe I'm missing something and the best way to know God really is to be temporarily Paleo. Maybe cavemen were closer to Jesus because they didn't eat grains? It just makes me chuckle how this all shakes out in the social media world of 2014.

I don't pretend to observe Ash Wednesday. Only to say that I've been thinking about it with respect today. Miles' memoir was thoughtful and honest in a way that made me consider my own faith. And also, the two ideas that Ash Wednesday seems to represent, as best as I can cobble together: reflection and acceptance of our mortality. Being reflective about my behavior--taking ownership of my actions--that's just something I could stand to do a little bit more of. And perhaps it's morbid to think about your death, but the other side of that is gratitude for the life that's in front of you.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Jazz Potatoes

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Henry: (Running over, holding a watermelon) Can we get it? A personal watermelon? I think we need a personal watermelon!

Me: Bud, I--

Addie: It's not in season.

Me: Right, it's not in season, that's what I was going to say.

Addie: It's not in season, so it will be too expensive and it won't even taste good.

Me: I guess my work here is done.

*

Henry: Can I get Cocoa Pebbles?

Me: Not today, only because they're not on sale. You can get the Froot Loops. We'll just tell Dad it was too good a deal and we had to get them instead of a healthy cereal because they were so cheap.

Henry: Swag.

Me: (laughing) Swag?

Addie: Yeah, he's saying that now. He did something and he was like, (head nod) "Swag!"

Me: Um.

Henry: Yeah. (Nods.)

Addie: But then he was like, "wait, are we not supposed to say 'swag'? Is it bad?"


*

Addie: (dancing)

Me: Feeling dancy?

Addie: Yeah. The grocery store just makes me want to dance.

Me: Me too, kinda.

Addie: I just can't help it. There's all this jazzy music, and these (looks around) jazzy potatoes.