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.