Monday, May 23, 2016

Podcast-A-Palooza (Part 2)

I'm back with more of my favorite podcasts, even though I'm feeling a touch bitter about the iPhone podcast app redesign.  Seriously, it's enough to make to me look for a new podcast catcher.  It went from being easy (both to see and navigate -- my eyes are getting old, people), to being some complicated format better suited to a tablet or laptop-sized screen.  So find these podcasts however you prefer; just be sure that if you really enjoy a specific podcast, you subscribe to it and rate it on iTunes, as it makes it more visible for other iTunes listeners/podcast news.  You don't want your new favorite podcast getting cancelled, now do you? (All Hail, King Apple!) On an unrelated note, auto-correct really wants me to call these posts, "Podcast-a-Palooka," which seems a very different post altogether.  

Let's get started.

History/Educational Podcasts (aka Learning CAN be fun!)

You Must Remember This

Do you love old movies as much as I do?  Do you think Turner Classic Movies is the only cable station that really matters?  Do you geek out over the dudes that give the background/history chats before and after the films on TCM?  (Ben Mankiewicz fangirl in the house!)  This is your podcast.  Karina Longworth hosts and writes this heavily researched (and generally themed) series of programs about "the forgotten history" of old Hollywood.  Really, the only downside of this podcast is the weirdly emphasized diction and pronunciations of the host. (Think an American Eliza Doolittle before she quite got the hang of the King's English.)  Currently, she's doing a series on the Hollywood Blacklist, which is fascinating, with the stories of such actors as Lena Horne, Jane Russell, and Charlie Chaplin, not to mention a whole lot of Howard Hughes.  Her previous seasons/series have also been stellar.  Don't miss her past episodes on Bogie and Baby and Hepburn and Tracy, two of my favorite Hollywood power couples.

**Not safe with kids in the car.  There are direct quotes from the subjects with the occasional F-bomb.

Stuff Mom Never Told You

This informative and well-researched podcast, hosted by Cristin Conger and Caroline Ervin, covers everything from the histories of birth control and women's suffrage to a breakdown of the women's pay gap or the history of Japan's comfort women, from the perspective of two smart and well-informed feminists.  This program may delve into history and politics, but there's nothing dry or dusty about the fascinating facts these two ladies dig up.  This program also has a fabulous YouTube channel, which I'll talk about more in an upcoming post on my YouTube/BookTube favorites.

(Important note: Make sure you download the SMNTY audio podcast.  The other podcast downloads the videos from the YouTube channel.)

**Safe with kids in the car as long as the topic itself is kid-friendly.


This is another podcast that's been on hiatus for awhile.  Good news is that new episodes will be back June 17th!  And don't forget there's all of season one to be discovered.  If you're interested in how the brain works and what makes us do and think what we do and think, this is the podcast for you.  A killer combination of science and story, this is another one of those can't-get-out-of-the-car-yet kind of listens.

**Unless the subject is specifically inappropriate, this one is kid-safe. (Though it's been awhile so don't hold me to that.)

More Bookish Podcasts

Beeks and Geeks

This is the publisher, Penguin Random House's, weekly author interview podcast.  It's a relatively recent discovery for me, that is a little hit-or-miss depending not the author being interviewed.  Don't get me wrong.  The interviews are solid, so long as it's an author you care about, or at least one that has something interesting to say.  I recommend listening to Emily St. John Mandel's interview, and Faith Salie's recent episode was also excellent.

**Should be safe for kids in the car (or at least it has been so far.)

The New Yorker: Fiction

Love the fiction that makes it into The New Yorker?  Want to hear it read by famous authors who are fangirling/fanboy-ing (is that last one a word?) as much as you?  This is your podcast.  My recommendations are: David Sedaris reading Miranda July's "Roy Spivey." Salman Rushdie reading Donald Barthelme's "Concerning the Bodyguard." And last but not least, Monica Ali reading Joshua Ferris' "The Dinner Party."  If you enjoy this podcast, they also have one called The Author's Voice, where the writers read their own work.

**Usually not kid-friendly, a fun fact that I learned when I accidentally let play a Denis Johnson story about a character named, "Fuckhead," with my then four-year old in the car.

So it looks like there's going to be a part 3 because I still have no many awesome podcasts to recommend.  Until then, happy listening.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Podcast-A-Palooza (Part 1)

There's been less writing this week because, well, life.  On the upside, my house is relatively clean, and the laundry is mostly done.  We're still one-car-ing it, but that just means more time for podcasts! If you didn't know already, I'm obsessed with podcasts (especially book-related ones), and some weeks there are so many good ones to listen to that if I don't keep my head in the game, I fall behind. So today I'm going to share some of my favorite podcast recommendations with you (complete with my opinion on whether or not they are kid-in-the-car-friendly.)

***This is only part one. There will be a part two with even more podcast-y goodness.

Storytelling Podcasts

Before I completely nerd-out with all my favorite bookish listens, I'll share a few of my favorite storytelling podcasts.  (Spoiler alert: They're mostly NPR related.  BIG SHOCK, I know.)

This American Life

Yeah, you've probably heard of this one.  A lot.  But ubiquity does not equal obsolescence.  This long-running radio program is long-running for a reason.  Amazing stories full of diverse voices and experiences.  Plus, freaking Ira Glass.  I can't get by without my weekly TAL fix.

**Safe with kids in the car unless they warn you in-episode (which they are really good about.)

Snap Judgment

So maybe TAL is too bland for you.  Maybe you need a little music (that doesn't always sound like it came straight off the latest indie-hipster movie soundtrack. Sorry TAL.)  Maybe you want a story that's been shaped and produced (and maybe even voice-acted) to give it more pop (or should I say, "Snap"?).  They don't call this program, "Storytelling with a beat" for nothing.  LOVE this podcast!

**Safe with older kids in the car (mostly.)

Death, Sex & Money

**Usually not a kid-friendly podcast.

More storytelling, only with a bit more of a thematic focus on, well, you guessed it.  I heart Anna Sale.

The Moth

The ultimate storytelling podcast.  They play recorded-live storytelling events from all over the world.  If you saw the season finale of HBO's Girls this season, you saw Hannah (Lena Dunham) perform at a fictional Moth event.  (Listen to this podcast anyway.)

**Generally not a kid-friendly podcast. 

Uncategorizable Podcasts

I'm just going to list a couple here that are either outside of a set category, aren't currently releasing new episodes (on hiatus), or are a bit more uneven as far as their "favorite" status goes.

Mystery Show

I love this super-quirky podcast with so many freaking loves.  Unfortunately, the second season has been really slow in coming out.  But in the meantime, listen to season one where Starlee Kine (a TAL alum) solves mysteries so personal and banal that you'll be left scratching your head as to why you-can't-get-out-of-the-car-until-it's-over.

**Probably older-kid safe.

The Longest Shortest Time

This program recently changed distributors, and with that change came a TON of ads.  If you don't mind (or can tolerate) the frequent (and sometimes lengthy) interruptions, however, this is a great podcast on parenting and what it looks like for all kinds of families.  A great place to start is the "Accidental Gay Parents" series of episodes, which will break your heart and make you laugh and feel all the feels.

**Varies, but usually it's good to be wary with this one while kids are in the car.

Book-related Podcasts!!!! (Why we're all here, let's be honest.)

All the Books

This is my GO-TO podcast for new book recommendations.  Hosted by Liberty Hardy and Rebecca Schinsky from Book Riot, an online community for book enthusiasm, this show comes out every Tuesday and features some of the new books being released on that day.  These two women have excellent taste, and they cover a wide range of genres (not just my standard lit-fic and literary memoir.)  Listen at your own risk, however, because you're Amazon account may never recover.

**Safe with kids in the car.

Get Booked

This is a fun write-in show for book recommendations (and another Book Riot podcast.)  Can't decide what to buy for your uncle who only reads books about the Vietnam War written prior to 1999?  They got you covered.  Need a title to scratch that tear-jerker itch?  They can hook you up.  Fun to listen to even if you don't write in recommendation requests.

**Safe with kids in the car.

Well, that's all for today.  I'll make some more podcast recommendations (bookish and otherwise) in my next post.  Until then, happy listening!

*Quick Note:  All of these can found on any of the big podcast catchers--including iTunes--for free.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Another Absolutely Uninteresting Update, or I Avoided Ranting Again! (Mostly.)

Yesterday, I skipped the writing in favor of attacking a rapidly growing of errands and lunch with my husband (something that doesn't happen very often...lunch with my husband, I mean.)  We had our usuals at our favorite downtown lunch place, Luna Rosa.  I'd post a drool-worthy picture of my go-to order (Mandarin Bliss Salad, add London Broil), but I was too busy scarfing down the mammoth-sized plate of yum to take a picture.  We also shared a little dessert because you CAN'T go there and not get their artisan gelato.  I believe yesterday's, "Caramel By the Sea," may have even surpassed their classic, "Caramello," and that's saying something.  Same story on the photo of the creamy goodness that was dessert.  Bonus was that we got to sit and eat a peaceful lunch together and chat without interruption or having to remind anyone to lower their voice or lean over their plate before shoving a forkful into their mouth.  I think we both even managed to get out of the restaurant without wearing any of our (or anyone else's) lunch.  Grown-up lunch FTW!

So all that to say that today is Day 4.  I may have skipped a day of work, but overall I'm sticking pretty close to my writing schedule, something that was aided by Kiddo's teacher, who gave me the day off from kindergarten volunteering today.  (YAY!!!)  Don't get me wrong -- I adore those sweet kiddos -- but some days it just feels like trading in your one child (work enough on her own) for twenty-two kids with the same questions, ploys, tactics.  (Who knew so many children shared that annoying habit of pretending not to know answers to their work in order to, I don't know, get out of work? assert a measure of control? see if they can make steam come out of my ears?  It's a mystery, but one I don't feel led to investigation on a large scale most days. ) So I'm grateful that it's nearly eleven thirty, and I'm not on my way to being sneezed on, stepped on, and otherwise assaulted by kindergarten germs.  To Kiddo's teachers: I salute you.  I praise you.  You are tops. You win all the awards in my book.

But for now, you'll have to settle for these homemade paper flowers.

Aside from my strict writing schedule, life continues on much as it usually does. We're still a one-car family temporarily, though the past two weeks have been a blissful relief as some friends allowed us the use of their vehicle when they were out of town.  I still have to sit through gymnastics today and sit with "the moms," pretending like I have even the vaguest idea of what's going on or what constitutes appropriate waiting area conversation.  (So far, it seems like the list includes: gymnastics, PTA, clothes shopping, comparing kid stories.  Basically, I'm screwed.) Still find myself avoiding as much political news as possible (for the sake of my own sanity.)  Still avoiding most American television. Still reading, though I've been rewarding myself with lighter-than-usual fare in hopes of lifting my spirits, which haven't exactly been floating sky-high recently.  It's difficult to maintain one's gloomy demeanor when one is reading PG Wodehouse.  I mean, I can't imagine Jeeves would approve of sulking (though passive-aggressive facial expressions might be tolerated/encouraged.)

Though I like to think he'd approve of my choice of hot beverage.

For now though, I'm back to B&N with my hot tea (no London Fog today) and Hamilton in my earbuds trying desperately to drown out the abysmal (and frankly, puzzling) music they've got cranked in the cafe. And in case, you're not yet impressed by my self-control and discipline, I'd like to point out that they now have the new #Hamiltome in stock, and I didn't immediately buy it and ditch my work.  I am a regular ascetic.  

Absolutely no plan for how I'm going to get out of here without buying this.

I imagine I'll finish the super-short Wodehouse tonight, so now comes the tricky task of deciding what to read next.  Not sure I'm ready to dig back into heavy-duty fiction yet, so I may pick up one of my Mother's Day gifts.

Decisions, decisions.

I'm going to keep it short today.  Blog less, write more, write like I'm running out of time, and any other clumsy Hamilton references you can think of. #WORK!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Reading, Writing, and Ralph Ellison

It's Day 3, and I'm working from home today.  Yesterday was easier than Friday, and fingers crossed that today will continue on in that direction.  My story-in-progress is, in fact, progressing, and I've been managing a minimum of two hours of solid, non-stop writing.  Actually, tomorrow could have gone on longer if my stomach would have cooperated.  (Apparently, a sugary tea latte and a Kind bar aren't enough to sustain me.  Who knew?)

My workspace today, lovely but surrounded by more distractions.

The king of distractions when he turns his "sad eyes" on you. 

Margot (aka Kitten Murderface, Aaron Purr, Satan, El Diablo, Bad Hat, Devil Cat, etc) is a distraction for all the wrong reasons.

But despite the frequent breaks to redirect our extremely evil feline away from destruction, I am plugging away, actually looking forward to wrapping up today's blog post and getting to work on my story (while comfortably ensconced in a spot where emergency nourishment is just down the hall.)  But before I do, I want to talk briefly about my most recent read. (Warning: We are leaving the frivolous world of cat pics far behind.)

Yet another entry in my "Books You Should Have Read in School" category.

Ralph Ellison's classic, Invisible Man, was on my list of catch-up books for a while before I spotted a pristine copy at the used bookstore a few months back.  I snagged it and parked it on my TBR shelf ("to be read" for the uninitiated.)  Aside from some very big picture stuff, I knew almost nothing about this book.  But I knew it was important, and that it fell into the embarrassed-I've-never-read-it category (along with a list of books so long I burn with shame.)  So finally, two weeks ago, I picked it up to read, knowing nearly nothing about the plot or characters and only a vague idea of the subject matter.

I wasn't prepared.  Somebody should have warned me.  First of all, this is not a plot-driven novel.  Secondly, this is not a character-driven novel.  The narrator/protagonist is a slippery fish whose personality and desires are almost impossible to nail down.  His beliefs and ideals flip-flop like said slippery fish throughout the book.  Thirdly (third of all? the third thing? these ordinals are getting out of control), this book is mostly people having philosophical arguments with the narrator.  I am not exaggerating.  This book was a slog.  And at nearly 600 pages, it was a long slog.  I kept having to give myself little pep talks to get through it -- especially when the protagonist hits his umpteenth betrayal by someone he trusted.  This book was a bummer.

But here's the thing: Read it anyway.  

Last year, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and it was mind-blowing in all the right, heartbreaking, life-changing ways.  Everything Coates said about the devaluing of the black body in America echoes so perfectly what Ellison calls the "invisibility" of the black man in America (even though I read the Coates book first.)  Read the Ellison and forget that it was set in the last century because, you know what?  It might as well be set today.  Sure, today we make more of a show of not using racial slurs and pretending that there is equal access to jobs and amenities, but the heart of it all remains unchanged.  Time and again we are sold the lie that America is a land of equals, that privilege is a myth, that educated and liberal white men can fix the problems of minorities.  We are told that racism is over, that people are playing the "race card," that whites can experience "reverse racism."  White liberals congratulate ourselves (I'm indicting myself too) on our open-mindedness, our ability to understand something that is beyond our experience.  We talk and talk, and we don't listen.

I'm not going to make some big proclamation or conclusion about finishing the Ellison book (aside from being really relieved to have reached the end for a whole lot of reasons.)  I don't believe it is my job to decide what it all means.  My job is to humbly listen, to read and listen and try to understand, to support those who do know, who have lived the experience, when they try attain positions of power, platforms where they can effect change.  My job is to police my own behavior, my own thoughts, to weed out any remnants of that pernicious subtle prejudice that is deeply rooted in all of those with privilege.  

For those readers who have gotten this far in my post, I'm probably preaching to the choir, but I'm going to say it anyway.  Don't post comments here about your disbelief in white privilege.  Please don't embarrass us both by telling me that you've had a hard life too.  This isn't a hardship contest, and that is not what privilege is about.  If you think it is, then you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept.  If that terminology is a stumbling block for you, set it aside.  Read the book anyway.  Read Coates' book (it's super-short, a one-sitting kind of read, though I recommend going slowly and taking it all in.)  I'm not looking for affirmation, praise, a fight, or really anything other than the hope that more people will read and listen and really think about what they see and hear, especially as we approach the election.  Think a little less about talking points and hot-button issues and really listen, not just to what your preferred candidate is saying, but also to what his/her supporters say.  What kind of America/world do they want, and what kind (read: color) of people does it include?  Worry less about your own entitlement and ask yourself what this country needs.  

Don't have any idea what this country needs?  You read and you listen and still don't have any answers?  Neither do I.  And as far as I'm concerned, that I just means I need to listen more.  Maybe being in the middle of uncertainty isn't such a terrible place to be.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Read Less, Write More (a Mid-Year Resolution)

Day Two of my new summer writing regimen, and I'm back in the B&N cafe with a London Fog and my laptop.  While I certainly don't plan to work from here every day this summer, I find that when I'm trying to reboot my discipline, knowing I can go somewhere I enjoy and get a drink that gives me a caffeine boost (and tastes delicious) gives me a little extra incentive to get moving when that hateful alarm goes off at six thirty (one of the parts of Kiddo being in school that I won't miss.)  Also, it can be helpful (when my discipline/attention span are struggling) to work in a space with no distractions. Sure there are people milling around and chatting (well, not this early, but they're coming), but at home it can be difficult to resist the call of the laundry or the cat or -- let's be honest -- the sofa.  Here, there's nothing to do but keep my butt in the (very uncomfortable) chair and write.  So until I get back in a rhythm, I'll be here trying to stretch out one tall London Fog and make myself invisible.  Like Friday, I am using my blog post as a way to write my way into my work for the day. Fingers crossed that I'm soon at the point where I can do my fiction writing first and use my (fun...well, fun for me, anyway) blog stuff as a reward for my hard work.  But I'm not there yet, and that's okay for now.

Enjoy this image because the wifi here is dragging this morning.  It's all your getting.

As often happens when I sit down to blog on a semi-regular basis (as opposed to when I have a specific bone to pick), I don't have a specific topic in mind when I break out my laptop -- unless it's to puzzle over why Google Play is so convinced I need to listen to Saint Saens' Bacchanale EVERY time I use it.  I'm seriously having youth orchestra flashbacks.  So today, let's talk about writing, my writing (or lack thereof.)  It may not be the most riveting topic, but if it helps with my accountability, then I'm willing to let you suffer through.  (Aren't I a sweetheart?)

Five years ago this summer (how is that possible?) I completed my MFA program after a consecutive six-year run of college (undergrad + grad).  It was with a strange combination of triumph and profound sadness that I attended my final commencement.  I'm one of those weirdos who likes to be in school.  Nay, I love it.  If I were rich, I would be student for the rest of my life, taking tests, writing papers, meeting deadlines, reading dense prose, and turning in creative work with pride and trepidation.  Alas, I am decidedly not rich.  And so I exited the academic world (as a student, anyway) and returned to normal life.  It is also worth noting that during my MFA I had Kiddo, who was eighteen months old when I graduated.

For six years, I read and I wrote constantly.  I was disciplined.  I was focused.  I was so very happy. Of course, there was a part of me that was relieved about the end of deadlines and class schedules (mostly the parent of a toddler part, I'm sure), but  I was totally blindsided by the writing paralysis that struck me almost the moment I was handed that diploma.  For at least six months, I couldn't write.  I was sad, bone-deep sad, about not being in school.  I was terrified to write without the safety net of my brilliant faculty mentors.  There were no more deadlines beyond those I set for myself.  And on top of everything else, my brain felt like it was slowly turning to sludge as I cared for my toddler (the preschool programming on tv probably didn't help that.)

I did manage to eventually shake free of the paralysis (mostly anyway), and I've had spurts of productivity (though that productivity has not included sending out my work.)  I'm blessed with writing friends and mentors nearby, and toddlers do eventually become preschoolers that allow for more free time (Preschool FTW!).  There is no way to plan, however, for the time-wrecker that is illness.  Nothing can make you feel defeated (and totally brainless) quite like being laid up in bed and heavily drugged.  I've yet to figure out a way to work through that fog.  And don't even get me started on motivation when you're life is constantly interrupted by illness.  It can all feel so pointless as you work/live with the constant fear of sickness lurking just around the corner.  It all becomes a bit of a self-defeating circle.

But, this summer I am trying to put all of this out of mind (hoping this post serves as a bit of a mind/memory cleanse) and start yet again.  Ass-in-seat every day (or least every week day.)  Never mind the times Ive tried this and been defeated.  I can't think about that.  It just leads to more paralysis, more guilt, more feelings of worthlessness.  Basically, an environment completely unconducive to writing.  Hence the whole B&N habit and my long post about nothing. (On an unrelated note, Google Play just gave me yet another youth orchestra flashback with Capriccio Espanol.  What's going on today?)

Lest you think that I've been sitting around feeling sorry for myself the past few years, au contraire.  I may not have been writing with anything that resembles regularity, but I've been reading the hell out of some books.  And not just any books.  I like to have a plan (no surprise there.)  There's the Books You Should've Read in School category.  Also, there was #readwomen2014 and an overall conscious effort to read more diversely in general.  I read with a purpose, an eye to the writing, dissecting the work to see what makes it work (and doesn't.)  A couple of years ago, I even started keepimg track of the books I read.  No idea why I wasn't doing that before; it's such a me, achievement-oriented thing.

In addition to my ongoing reading plans, I have a writing plan for this summer.  I should have three stories ready to start sending out by the end of summer (if I stick to it.)  One story has been in editing stages for somewhere in the neighborhood of three years (so very sick of this story), one is an old story I want to overhaul and make something of, and the third is a new piece that I'm working on right now (well, when I'm not writing this blog entry.)

So that's where I am with my writing just now.  It remains to be seen how many London Fogs and Kind bars will have to give their lives in aid of my goal.  Now, it's time to get to some fiction writing, and when I just can't write anymore (or they throw me out of the cafe), I'm prepared for that too.  I've got Ellison's Invisible Man in my bag (another check off my missed classics list) with only 130 pages to go.

Friday, May 6, 2016

I'm Back (and Grumpier Than Ever.)

It has become clear that I am incapable of maintaining my blog through a semester of teaching.  Between the hectic schedule (we're temporarily a one-car family, which is INSANE), the teaching, the grading, the parenting, the regular life stuff, and ever-present health issues, my good intentions fell down, paving whatever road I was on (we know which one), and I haven't written ANYTHING since January.  I mean no writing.  No fiction, no editing, no blogging, just reading for class and reading freshman papers. (No comment.) It's not been great for my state of mind, but I try to keep my head down and plug away.  The good news is that I posted final grades this morning, and I am a free woman till August.  Actually, I have almost a month until Kiddo is out of school, so I have three-and-a-half weeks of uninterrupted writing time, and dammit, I'm going to make the most of it.  So on this, my first day of freedom, I hauled my lazy, depressed ass to Barnes & Noble, laptop in hand (or in bag, as the case may be), loaded up on sugary goodness (London Fog and a GF marshmallow treat) and got to work.

Why, yes, I do have a filter addiction.  But it's so pretty.

I glanced through my notes and opened up a blank document on my Mac and freaked the *%#@ out. White space is infinitely scarier, more intimidating, when you've been neglecting your craft for months.  I feel like such a slacker.  So I decided to compromise by starting with a little blog entry (instead of ending with it as a reward as I'd earlier planned.)  For some reason, a blank blog screen is so much less frightening.  I think maybe it's the whole give-yourself-permission-to-write-badly thing.  I'm usually much less focused on perfection when I'm tapping out a quick note to my blog buddies.  (Sorry, nothing personal.)  But, it is writing and totally counts, especially on this first day back in the old writing saddle.  My computer is out, and I am practicing ass-in-seat with every ounce of self-control I have left.  (I probably have some to spare today since I didn't use any when ordering in the cafe.)

So what has been going on since January, you ask?  (It's okay if you didn't.  This is just about my continuing to type, remember?)  Well, Kiddo turned six, our cat has morphed into the literal spawn of Satan, I survived another semester (with a brand-new subject), I skipped another Valentine's Day, we killed another vehicle, I read (though not as many books as I'd like), I discovered the skinny London Fog at Starbucks, and I bought a new handbag (not something I do very often.)  Oh wait, I forgot the most important thing: I became completely obsessed with Hamilton.  My six year old now has a preternatural knowledge of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Revolutionary War in general.  (I read Sarah Vowell's Lafayette and the Somewhat United States during that time as well, which only deepened the whole 18th century America obsession.)  I've also gotten really skilled at muting out the worst of the four-letter words in the musical's soundtrack whenever Kiddo is in the car.  We don't need her going to school and singing about the "Mother@#%*ing Democratic Republicans," now do we?

"Work" indeed.

Health-wise, I've remained in a bit of holding pattern.  Lately, I've been dealing with a med change that hasn't gone exactly as planned (mood swings and electrical-feeling brain zaps, anyone?)  Good times, but I haven't been hospitalized or had a major illness since February, so we're definitely calling that a win.  I still get frustrated by the way in which my health issues limit my lifestyle (and that of my family), but I don't suppose that is going anywhere any time soon.

So, while some things may have changed over the last few months, one very important thing remains the same:  I'm still a grumpy, cranky, get-off-my-lawn old lady who really wants a t-shirt that says, "He's a Komondor.  Yes, his hair is supposed to look like that.  Yes, he can see.  Go ahead and take your picture if it means you'll leave me alone.  No, I can't eat that.  No, I won't ever be joining you at a church event, as every single one is centered on food and people don't take no for an answer.  No, I don't want to talk about my Celiac, and I'm so happy that you once met somebody with a tummy ache which you're certain is the same thing and can be cured by juicing.  And stop thinking it's funny/cute when you (a grown man) tell my child she's going to marry you when she grows up."  

I know.  I'm a freaking ray of sunshine.

I hope this won't be a lone post .  No, I know this won't be a lone post.  I'm committed.  I have plenty to say; I just have to plan so that every post isn't an angry, cranky rant.  For now, though, I've put off that white space long enough.  My fingers and brain are warmed up, and the caffeine from my London Fog is circulating.  Time to get writing.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Diverse Discussions, or How I Fumble Through Faulkner

Class has officially started. I'm one week into classes, and so far, so good.  The first day was disastrous (there was rain, copier issues, no parking, and a sopping wet ballet flat involved), but I recovered.  And yesterday, I got to give my first quiz, and it was glorious.  I'm not afraid to admit the giddy feeling I had when I told them to take out a sheet of paper and number to five, and they all groaned.  (At least I gave them warning.)  It was like every childhood playing-teacher role play come true.  And after three semesters of grading nothing but papers, grading quizzes this morning was easy peasy.  Now I have the rest of the morning to read and plan for tomorrow (and make up another quiz! YES!)  Lest you think I'm totally heartless (no, you're right, I am), I did give out fun size candy bars to students who answered difficult questions in discussion.  So that's cool, right?  Even super-cool college students like sugar and chocolate.

Look at those beautiful quizzes waiting to graded.

The best part of the class so far (aside from it being second semester freshmen instead of first!) is that we get to sit around and talk about short fiction (at least for the first half of the semester), picking it apart, talking about it in historical context, looking for clues about the more ambiguous parts of the story.  Fun, fun, fun.  I even like to kid myself that the students who claim only to love Nicholas Sparks-style happy endings (their term, not mine) are having a little bit of fun with "A Rose for Emily."  Maybe not.  And fingers crossed on finding a way to get my back row lurkers talking and participating (not even chocolate is working on them.)  They better enjoy the peace and quiet now because once I have everybody's name down, their anonymous corners of quiet will be no more.

This is my first time teaching this particular class (or any literature class at all, for that matter), and there are still some rough places I'm working to smooth.  While we certainly read stories, poems, and essays in my other classes, the discussion of those pieces was different than in a literature course.  We're talking about the stories/poems/plays less in terms of the mechanics of the writing and more in terms of the content, the meaning.  While I'm totally up for these kinds of discussions, there is one area where I really fear incompetency, and that is race.

In case you didn't already know, I am a white, middle class, American woman.  The only way I could be more systemically privileged is if I were male and had a bad combover.  I try to embrace diversity. I am conscious of what I read in my personal life, searching out authors who are women and people of color.  I try to find news stories that go beyond our contiguous 48 and understand that the Western perspective is not the only perspective.

And yet, when we read a story set in the deep South during Reconstruction or encounter a character who uses racial slurs or discuss women's roles in the Victorian era and realize I mean white women, I know I have to address these things in class.  I see my minority students and am seized by fear that I'm handling the discussion clumsily (I am).  I worry that I sound like some clueless white woman pretending to understand centuries of systematic oppression (I am that too, unfortunately.)  And I just feel inadequate to the task.

Thinking back to my time in college, I can't remember professors addressing these things, how they handled them --- not because they didn't, I'm sure, but because it wasn't something I had to think about.  It didn't affect my life; those dead white guys looked like me.  And the instances of slavery and racial slurs and bigotry in literature were just something you shook your head at and thought smugly I would never do that.

But I realize now that being internally angry or appalled at historical injustice is not enough.  And I can't just sit on my hands and hope that my students (particularly students of color) bring up the topics in discussion either.  That's not their job. The question then becomes how to address these issues without making any students feel singled out or resentful.  In the past, I've heard white students address issues of race and find myself cringing internally at their tone-deaf proclamations, frantically replaying my words, praying I don't sound so sure of an experience I'll never have.  (Most of my students, however, look as terrified as me of saying something stupid or ill-informed.)

I don't yet have any answers.  And this little post isn't a search for a pat on the back or reassurance that my own soul-searching is noble.  I know that it is not enough.  I know that despite my best intentions, we will read more dead white guys this semester than women or people of color.  I know that I am unable to fully understand the complicated feelings some of my students may have about some of the pieces we will read.  I know some of you will read this and find it to be a lot of unnecessary hand-wringing.  Allow me to respectfully disagree.  Literature is vital piece of our history and culture, and in a nation whose racial/ethnic make-up is constantly evolving, so must our consumption of literature evolve.  Reading increases empathy, and so we should model that empathy for students and readers of every background.

Monday, February 1, 2016

That's My Girl

Class starts Wednesday, and I have a mountain of lesson prep to do (not sped along by the hour and a half I spent on the phone with Mom this morning, something we almost never do), so this will be a short entry.  Just wanted to share a quick Kiddo anecdote for your Monday morning.

As you know, I love books.  I love the written word.  And we have worked hard to make Kiddo a voracious reader.  She was reading on her own at four, and she is quite unstoppable now, reading anything you put in front of her.  She loves books, and I couldn't be happier.  Today, her appetite for reading netted her some recognition on the morning school tv broadcast, and I got to see her accept the AR (Accelerated Reader) trophy on behalf of her class.  Needless to say, she was incredibly excited.  (She was also the only girl top-reader.  Way to represent, Kiddo!)

But as proud as I am of her love and skill for reading, I think my heart swells even more for her obsession with writing/creating stories.  This girl loves to tell a story and has a story for every occasion.  She writes them, illustrates them, and then demands staples or binder clips to hold together her latest work of genius.  I deeply admire her complete lack of inhibitions with regard to her writing, and her assumption that everything she writes and illustrates is a masterpiece that will garner accolades from everyone who encounters it.

So here's the story with all the feels:

The other day when I picked her up from school, I was listening to one of my bookish podcasts, a recommendation request show called, Get Booked, from Book Riot.  The hosts were talking about a fantasy series author who used to write straight literary fiction but switched to fantasy after a request from his little girl to write "a book about a little girl who saves the world."  I don't remember the book or the author.  I probably wouldn't have remembered what they said at all if not for what happened next.

We got home and after the usual homework and settling in, Kiddo disappeared to her room to work on something that involved copious amounts of printer paper and markers.  I happened to walk past later, and she called me in.  Waving a page she was still writing on and illustrating she said, "I'm writing a book about an ordinary girl who saves the world.  Your podcast inspired me."

Have you ever just wanted to squeeze your kid until their little eyeballs bugged out?  It was one of those moments where you look at your child and think, Yep, she's mine.  She elaborated, "I was listening to you podcast, and when they said that about the book about the girl who saves the world, I just loved it.  So, of course, that meant I had to write about it.

Well, obviously.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Pop Quiz, Hotshot!

Oh the joys of planning lessons (read: choosing stories and poems) for a literature survey course.

My warm and cozy nook.  This was after I ate ALL THE COOKIES.

First you sit down and figure out exactly how many class periods you will have for the semester.  Then you look at that giant, doorstop of a textbook and start making some hard choices.  (This involves lots of sticky tabs.  Did I mention I LOVE office supplies?)  What do you leave out?  It can't be Flannery O'Connor.  And certainly not Nathaniel Hawthorne--everyone should have to read "Young Goodman Brown" at least fifty times in college.

All this decision-making isn't made any easier by the lovely sampling of contemporary writers that are included--Nathan Englander, Junot Diaz, Annie Proulx, and don't forget that Peter Meinke story that makes everyone cry. ("The Cranes")  Balance must also be considered: Am I including a significant number of female authors?  People of color?  Is Sherman Alexie really not in there?  This is hard.  I want to include all the stuff.  All the stories.

But this is not just a fiction course.  There's poetry.  And drama.  I love poetry--drama, not nearly so much.  Maybe we could read a few poems, watch a movie, and call it day.  Read more stories!  If we read a story about a person who writes poetry, does that count? (Just kidding, poet friends.  We'll be reading lots of good stuff.)

And because all of this wasn't challenging enough, I asked for some sample syllabi to make sure I cover everything required.  What do they send me?  Just the syllabus of one of the most awesome English professors I ever had, you know the kind: Her syllabus is detailed and perfect.  You can read the words/instructions in her voice and feel instantly inept as you imagine yourself attempting to teach the same subject matter.  Is it too late to back out?

I'm trying not to even think about making up tests.  The classes I've taught so far have all been writing courses.  I can grade a paper with the best of them. (Well maybe not with the best, but I can certainly manage it.)  I've never written a test before.  Will I over empathize and make it too easy?  Will I be subconsciously angered by perceived student apathy and make it too hard?  Will half the class simply refuse to show up for the midterm?  (Sorry, I was having flashbacks to last semester.)

Of course, the good part about having the SuperProfessor syllabus is that I can steal/borrow her awesome ideas, namely, I'm totally making my students memorize and recite a poem.  (My husband asked if it could be a limerick or haiku.  Pretty sure he's a college freshman in disguise.)  We're definitely going to attend the theater department's spring production (though admittedly, the name of it didn't really kindle anticipation and excitement in my heart.)  And I'm absolutely requiring them to submit PCQs on their readings. (Pre-class questions, for the uninitiated in Dr. Brown's amazing classes.)

One thing I'm really looking forward to is the quizzes.  There will be so many quizzes.  Planned quizzes.  Secret quizzes.  Hard quizzes.  Short quizzes.  If there's one thing I learned last semester, it's that freshmen will not do their homework unless moved by intense fear.  And so I will strike fear in their hearts with quizzes.  I will show no mercy with multiple choice answers.  It will be short answer.  It will be timed.  And most importantly, it will be at the very beginning of class, you late slackers.  Muwaaahaaa.  Is it wrong that I'm looking forward to the first student who wanders in five minutes late and misses the quiz?  Probably.  Do I care?  Not so much.

So that's pretty much my weekend.  Oh, yeah, there's also a ton of snow outside my window (at least a ton by SC standards.)  But that's more my husband's and Kiddo's domain.  I remain in my little hole, planning (plotting?) in front of my personal heater.  And when I start to feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities (Donne? Shakespeare? Keats? Eliot?), I just sit back and imagine all those sweet freshman sliding down snowy hills, sipping steaming drinks, laughing with friends, all completely and blissfully unaware of the quizzes that await them.

Also blissfully ignorant of my evil plans.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snowpocalypse? Not so much.

When I got up this morning, there was a lovely blanket of white covering everything, making our ugly backyard beautiful, covering up the rusty wheelbarrow and the old charcoal grill that needs to go to the dump.  Even those stupid wild onions that pop up in our front yard every winter are hidden by the snow.  Unfortunately, that picturesque moment has been pretty much obliterated by a steady fall of freezing rain ever since.  The snow is still under there somewhere, but I don't think any cute kids will be asking if they can sled down our hill this afternoon.

View from the porch (as far our as I intend to venture.)

And while we're on the topic of plans and visions going awry...the weather has also put a stop to my work/reading bonanza of a weekend.  My husband and Kiddo were planning to go to visit grandparents sans mommy this weekend, leaving me to be productive and bask in the quiet solitude of an empty house.  Don't get me wrong--I'm glad they're home safe, but there is a small part of me that is mourning my lost weekend.

On the upside, you haven't lived until you've heard a six year old waking up to snow outside the window. Excited doesn't begin to cover it.  She's been asking to go outside every five minutes since her feet hit the floor.  The child has no understanding of sleet and freezing rain.  Looks like we may have to let her find out the hard way.  At least my husband is off from work and can take her out in the mess whilst I stay warm and cozy in front of my heater.

The furry members of our family have opinions about the weather too.  The Big Dog LOVES cold weather, and snow is even more magical for him than Kiddo, I believe.  You're trying to walk him, and all he wants do is FROLIC.  He has no appreciation of our distaste for icicles on our eyebrows.  Kitten Murderface, however, is just happy that all the blinds are open, the better to wreak havoc on all the cords and slats, all while being highly suspicious of the tink, tink of ice on the windows.

The best part of this most un-Snowmaggedon of days, however, is that we can't/won't go ANYWHERE.  Never one for flitting here and there, I've progressed to nearly hermit levels as I've gotten older, and leaving the house is one of my least favorite things.  So today there was no hauling Kiddo to school before the sun is fully up, or waiting in car line for nearly an hour.  I don't even have to put on pants! (I did, though.  Can I collect my prize now?)

So, while my productivity may be slightly less (especially following a work/teaching related hiccup discovered this morning) and my peace and quiet significantly reduced, at least all my clothes are cotton and have elastic.  My socks are fuzzy.  My tea is hot.  And Kiddo wears fleece footie pajamas at night that make her look like a cuddly stuffed animal.  Snow Day FTW!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Better Late Than Never - My 2015 Favorite Reads

So let's just pretend, shall we?  Let's pretend that the end of 2015 is nearly upon us, or maybe 2016 just arrived fewer than 48 hours ago.  Your now dusty Christmas tree is still holding court in the living room, the tree skirt rumpled and askew.  There are three Christmas cookies left, but they've gone stale and nobody wants them, and an arm wrestling bout is scheduled for later to decide the fate of the last of the Christmas ham.  You're back to work, but you still have that holiday sleep schedule hangover.  And if you hear one more Burl Ives Christmas carol, somebody is getting hurt.  That, my friends, is when the Best Of lists should appear on blogs and vlogs and websites everywhere.  NOT on January 12, 2016.  But we've agreed to pretend that I'm on top of things, so let's all just enjoy this land of make believe and talk about my favorite reads of 2015.

First, it's confession time.  I only read 55 books this year.  (Books read from beginning to end, not counting any DNFs.)  That's down from last year's number, and I'm slightly embarrassed.  I'm the first to admit that I'm fiercely competitive and acquisitional (is that a word?) with my reading, and I would have preferred to top my previous number.  But apparently, teaching and volunteering and chauffeuring took its toll, and I averaged just over a book a week.  MUST do better in 2016.

Now, on to my favorites.


1Q84, Haruki Murakami

This wasn't my first Murakami, but I do believe it is my new favorite.  I'm always a sucker for a giant, doorstop of a book, and this "little" tome delivered.  Magical, dream-like, all the things we always say about Murakami, only there was just something else about this one that made it surpass The Wind-up Bird Chronicle as my favorite.  I can't really put my finger on what it is.  Maybe it was the badass lady assassin.  Maybe it was the happy ending.  Maybe the reason is as hard to pin down as one of Murakami's mysterious cats.  Loved this book.

Find Me, Laura Van Den Berg

If you haven't figured this out already, I'm a sucker for dystopian/post-apocalyptic/speculative fiction. Margaret Atwood is my jam.  I never miss an episode of The Walking Dead.  This beautiful book scratches my disaster itch with a story of a young survivor of a plague that has wiped out much of the US.  Van Den Berg is an amazing writer, and combining her skills with my favorite subject matter made for a book I couldn't stop reading (and recommending.)

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I am so embarrassed to admit that I'd never read this book before this year.  It was just one of those bizarre gaps in my reading that I was determined to remedy.  This little book needs no explanation or blurbing.  Loved it.

Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg

I'm listing these books in the order I read them, not in the order in which I loved and adored them.  Otherwise, this book would be near the top.  Heard about this title on the All the Books podcast, and it just intrigued me.  Reserved it at the library and proceeded to devour this story.  My only regret is that I don't actually own a copy.  If you love stories about the Depression, New York City, independent women, or immigrants, this based-on-a-true-story novel is for you.  It reads as a collection of journal entries, news clippings, and interviews.  It covers a lot of ground, but moves so quickly that you'll be in shock (and maybe in mourning) when it ends.  I need to read this one again.

Music for Wartime, Rebecca Makkai

Not just my favorite short story collection of the year, this may be one of my favorite short story collections of all time.  Another All the Books find, these stories are smart and beautiful and funny and sad in turn.  I especially recommend this collection if you are a lover of classical and/or orchestral music.  And if you need any more prompting to pick this one up, there's a story where a miniature Bach crawls out of a woman's piano and becomes her interim boyfriend.  Yeah, that happened.

In the Country, Mia Alvar

I've read comparisons between Alvar and Jhumpa Lahiri, and they're not off the mark.  This is a gorgeous short story collection about immigrants, outsiders, and the other.  Loved it.

Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff

I'm always suspicious of hype, and this book came with plenty.  Somehow, though, it managed to live up to the raves.  Beautiful, sprawling book about a marriage.  If you liked The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer), you'll like this book.

The Maddaddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

So, I cheated.  This is actually three books, but I read the whole trilogy this year, and I couldn't just pick one of the books as a fave.  Loved, loved, loved these books.  Got to the end and wanted to immediately start over and read them all again.  Nobody does speculative fiction like Atwood.  Also, name drop...she tweeted me back!


The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, was amazing and a must-read about Nigerian brothers living with a curse.

Tenth of December, by George Saunders, is another embarrassing gap in my reading.  One of the ultimate short story collections.  Took my breath away.


This Angel on my Chest, by Leslie Pietrzyk - Do yourself a favor and read this book immediately.


Faith Unraveled, Rachel Held Evans
Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans

Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates - Here's a link to my previous mentions of this amazing book.

Well, there you have it.  My latest loves of the literary kind.  I'd post about my TBR, but it's grown to an unmanageable size.  Too much book shopping in Asheville over Christmas break!  (No such thing.)  So I'd better get back to my reading!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Resurrecting a Blog (and a Life)

It has become clear that my real skill is vanishing off the face of the earth at will.  Alas, an intense final month of fall classes followed by the holidays and yet another serious illness (including a hospital stay this time) has kept me from my blog and my writing (as well as lots of other things I love.)  It's discouraging, but it seems to be a fact of life around here.  The good news is that I'm back (again), and I've still got a few weeks until classes start back for me.  I'll be teaching English 102 this term, my first lit class, so there's an incredible amount of planning yet to be done, and I'm grateful to only be teaching the one class.  I am determined to use the extra time to get back to writing and to stop letting life and illness get in the way.  As in the past, this blog is a good tool for holding myself accountable to a daily writing schedule, and if I can manage to stay healthy for a few months, I just might make some progress.

Ah, my little workspace, how I have missed you.

Interestingly, these post-illness life reboots are something I haven't encountered in all my reading about chronic illness.  There's lots out there about missing out and fatigue and trying to help people understand invisible illness, but I don't believe I've seen anything about the starting over (physically, socially, etc) that happens after every episode or relapse.  After dropping out of circulation for days, weeks, or even months, you have to maneuver your way back into your commitments, your friendships, your schedule, and sometimes even current events.  And this isn't something that you have to figure out one time.  You are faced with this jockeying for position every time you return from a major illness (at least until you quit trying and withdraw altogether, which can be a real temptation.)  It's discouraging, intimidating, and isolating.  Basically, it sucks.  Every time.

First, there are the logistics.  You don't generally just wake up one day feeling hale and happy.  In fact, most chronic illness patients exist more on a sliding scale of wellness that never quite reaches "All Better."  So deciding when to go from confined-to-bed to back-to-normal can be tricky.  How much of your "normal" workload/social schedule can you even manage?  Because you don't want to cause a setback in your recovery.

Then you have all the people who have had to make other arrangements when they couldn't rely on you.  No matter how much they care about you and your health, these folks (whether they are work, church, or school colleagues) need someone they can depend on to get the job done, and when your ability to deliver is frequently a big question mark, it can be challenging to convince them to let you back in on the work.  This situation can be painful to navigate, as there is plenty of guilt and frustration to go around for both "sides."  I never feel anger for the person who's reluctant to let me back in, but I do feel incredibly guilty at having failed them and unbelievably frustrated at my body's repeated betrayals.  I'm organized and goal-oriented, and illness is neither of those things.

And let's not forget relationships.  There is a hard truth about chronic illness: When you're sick and confined to home or bed, the outside world keeps turning.  Friends still meet for drinks.  Couples still have dinner parties.  Movies are seen in theaters by those who are well enough to venture beyond their bedrooms.  While certainly, there are those close friends who make the effort to see and encourage you through your periods of incapacitation, it can be very challenging to maintain any sort of social circle when you're constantly having to drop out of the loop.

I have found this socially isolating aspect of chronic illness to be intensified by having special requirements or needs even when you are healthy.  Because of my Celiac, I am very limited to where I can safely eat, and so much (a dizzying amount really) of our social interaction is built around food.  Meals or snacks are incorporated into nearly every church event, club meeting, or even meet-up with friends.  So, even when I'm not pulling a bed-ridden disappearing act, I'm having to manage one of my illnesses by saying no to numerous social events, and it doesn't make for a very full dance card.

Lastly, these repeated beginnings lead to a sense of disconnection.  Talk about feeling irrelevant.  You weren't there.  You don't know the funny stories, the inside jokes.  New shit has come to light, and you missed the memo.  And to make matters even more awkward, every one you see wants to talk about --you guessed it-- your illness.  You look great!  You look tired!  You're so thin.  Should you be out yet?  I don't know how you do it. People are just being kind, and you know this, but when you're trying to make a comeback (for the millionth time), often the last thing you want to talk about is your weight loss or meds.  All you want, really, is just to be in again, to not be marked with that invisible "S" on your chest --Sick.

So here I am, yet again, starting over.  My writing, my commitments, my relationships, my life.  While I was on pause, the rest of the world continued on at what seems like double speed, and nobody recorded what I missed.  Thankfully, this was one of my shorter vanishings, but I live daily with the fear that I will vanish again without warning, and sometimes, I wonder if I'll ever despair of the fight to reinsert myself into my own life.