Saturday, November 28, 2009

Long Live The King of Pop

Surprisingly, since Michael Jackson's recent death, not much has been blogged about him as a literary figure.

It's a classic fairy tale, the rise of the youngest brother in the group of five, dedicated to overcoming the abuse he suffered as a child, and how that dedication ultimately led to his demise. The fortune and fame of being a world superstar were no consolation to Jackson's invisible demons. He may have transformed physically. He may have had everything in that dark, cluttered mansion, but he struggled with basic human needs: love, acceptance, identity.

He could change his face. He could change the entertainment industry. He could impact world poverty. But Jackson couldn't fix the damage done to him by his own father.

Only through drugs could the Man in the Mirror escape his past, and his future of having to grow up. He tried desperately to create a family and a home. Although the world was at his feet, the icon ironically died empty and alone.

I was never a fan. True, Jackson was the emblem of my generation, but the moonwalking/ crotch-grabbing/teeth-clenching, the falsetto interjections, even the epic music videos were just not that appealing to a California girl who just wanted to have fun with a certain rainbow-haired vocalist from Queens.

Like all great artists, however, once the King of Pop proved his mortality, he became significant
--even to me.

I suddenly saw the innovation and expression of his work. I listened, really listened, to his lyrics: "You Are Not Alone," "Scream," "Cry," "Unbreakable"; and I began to understand his suffering. We may have all grown up with the boy, but no one ever knew him.

The tragedy does not lay in this effigy's death. It was in his life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


So, I'm all about trauma (not really), and am absolutely prepared for and calm during any calamity involving people, pain, and body fluids (no way).

When my EMT husband is around, I go ahead and let him deal with the accidents and injuries. Since it's his hobby, and everything.

I watch his craft, and listen to his stories about blood, guts, spit, snot, vomit, and liquids of the bathroom nature.

I'll even watch "Trauma," NBC's troubled drama (hence the portmanteau).

But something about the show really irks me, and it's definitely not the setting (San Francisco).

All the male characters have this need to take care of Nancy, an otherwise capable and experienced paramedic. And I'm talking all the males: the ER doctor, Nancy's current riding partner, Nancy's ex-partner, the helicopter pilot, her dad.

I can deal with her low-cut uniform shirt and her low-rise pants. But I can't deal with the premise that although Nancy can take care of the most critical patients, she can't take care of herself.

Maybe if the show had been a little more feminist (okay, I'd settle for a little less sexist), it wouldn't have flatlined.

Maybe if NBC had stuck to the blood and guts (and the Castro episode), even viewers like me would've given it a better chance.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Where College is Going

Last week, the California University system proposed a 32% fee increase.

Possible Effects:

More students will go to private universities, where tuition is higher, but so is aid?

Greater population in community colleges?

The eventual privatization of higher ed?

Greater number of "gap years," when students work after high school instead of going straight to college?

Probable Effect:

Wider national chasm between rich and poor.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sick of Sick

"Where did all these wipes go?" my husband asked, holding up the empty Clorox container.

"I used them up," I told him.

"You?" he said, "The one who is opposed to all disinfectant? Why?"

I said I was sick of sick. Until yesterday, for the last two and a half straight weeks, I'd had at least one kid home with something.

Since May, there's been a double round of strep throat. There've been ear infections, sinus infections, and That Flu.

The crazy part is that we've had more sickness since May than in all 12 years we've had kids.

I was convinced it was mold. Even though I couldn't see it. Or smell it.

The only way to know for sure was to tear apart the bathroom drywall. Which I did.

And although Dave, a career drywaller, tried to tell me pre-crowbar, there was not a single spore.

Then I wiped and sprayed and squirted and scrubbed. Everything.

Now there are about 25 empty cleaning agent containers. Our eyes might be burning a little, our stomachs kind of churning from all the chemicals. But no one has said they have a scratchy throat or a runny nose, and I can totally live with that.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Love and David Levithan

David Levithan strolled into A Children's Place bookshop in Portland with a blue backpack strapped to his back, and shoes that were nice, but which had pounded a lot of pavement.

He talked mostly about the World Trade Center memorial lights: how he had first seen them while driving back from the airport after flying in from London, how they illuminate the city during the anniversary of 9/11.

He said that Claire's pilgrimage mirrors his own, that she was the character hit hardest by the tragedy. The passage Levithan chose to read was "The Lights," narrated by Claire.

He explained the reason his climatic scene starts in the first chapter.

There were no books to buy; the store had run out before the visit began. But Levithan, in his well-ironed shirt, was unruffled; he crammed wisdom and his autograph onto skinny strips of stickers.

And he gave me a CD of songs he had made. I listened to it all the way home, partial to tracks 4, 6, and 10.

Before I left, though, I had asked Levithan about the conclusion. I teach my college students there are only so many kinds, I said, and I've tried and I've tried, but I can't figure this one out.

That's because there is no real end, he told me, It's like the tragedy itself; it's just not all wrapped up.

Then he put his arm around my daughter for a picture, and I thought, this man is love. He writes about love and he talks about love and he walks love, walks it right in those nice but well-worn shoes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Doing the David Levithan Dance

It took some serious finagling, that's for sure.

To get to see my new fave, David Levithan, author of the deep and redeeming Love Is The Higher Law, I've had to cover two boys overnight, plus an entire class of writers.

But I did it.

I had to.

This guy has blown me away. I used this novella in my community college class, to show the integration of fiction into research, to prove that fiction is worthy of critical thought.

And speaking of "critical," Levithan's timeliness is. The novella debuted two weeks before the eight-year anniversary of the World Trade Center's collapse. It packs three teens' self-searches in a destroyed New York into a slim 163 pages, narrated by three voices.

I know. Crazy.

How does Levithan do it? Along with being clean and tight, the plot is simple: under 9/11 rubble, these kids struggle before finding community. And humanity. And hope.

Every word is chosen meticulously. Here's Claire: "I want to have faith in strangers. I want to have faith in what we're all going to do next. But I'm worried... Wouldn't it be wonderful if we really came together, if we found a common humanity? The hitch is that you can't find a common humanity just because you have a common enemy. You have to have a common humanity because you believe that it's true."

Who could not love the honesty, the wisdom there?

Oh, I hope Levithan reads that part in Portland tomorrow. That, and pages 105 and 106. And of course page 153.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Comes Around...

I lend out a lot of books. It brings me super satisfaction to hook up a reader with the perfect read.

The winning pairs have been an old family friend and The Future Housewives of America, my cousin and The Alchemist, my daughter and Mandy, my aunt and Patty Jane's House of Curl. There was also my son's teacher and Possessing the Secret of Joy. And my college roommate and Like Water for Chocolate.

For some reason, it's easier for me to match literature to females, but successful relationships have been formed between my brother and Godless, an acquaintance and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and a doctor and Freakonomics.

On rare occasion, someone will give me a book that fits perfectly, like a pair of shoe orthotics that are between being nicely broken in and too worn thin. These have included Pobby and Dingan from my sister, Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You from Christy, and, though I hate admitting it, Four Blondes from my husband. Because I read a lot/teach English/write, I guess, well-meaning people are always loaning me literature they think I'll love.

But as you know by now, I'm a tough critic.

When someone asks to borrow one of my books, I am both eager to lend it and doubtful; I want to be sure it comes back. After writing my name prominently on the front cover, I stress that the book is one of my favorites, to please return it. I know: anal. I always remember who has my book, when I gave it to them, and whether or not it's returned.

You know where this blog is going.

Yep. Someone jacked my beloved The Shadow of the Wind.

Here's how it happened: in June 2007, my kids were in swimming lessons at the park. I had just gotten back the Gothic novel from my friend, when a colleague noticed it laying on the lawn, and took interest in it. Said Colleague is a professor of literature, from Europe, with a fetish for all things foreign. I couldn't believe he hadn't heard of the book. It was such a fit! I handed it over with much enthusiasm.

And have waited a year and a half to get it back.

I've missed that $14 book. Since I gave it away, I could've lent it to other readers a hundred times over.

I've hinted at needing the book back, even flat-out demanding. No luck. Though I'd like to, I can't imagine forgetting that Said Colleague has my book stashed away on some shelf, buried by dust. Excuse me while I grab a tissue.

Recently, a funny thing happened. I was (early) Christmas shopping at a big gift store, when Said Colleague sauntered over, wearing the store name tag. He explained that he was moonlighting during the holidays, earning extra cash for some hefty wish lists. He'd be happy to give me his employee discount card, he said. I could save 30 %.

Of course I took him up on his offer. He had my cherished book hostage, remember?

With the employee discount, I pocketed a $14 savings.

Guess what I did with it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Best. Papers. Ever.

While my kids sorted and traded their Halloween candy on Sunday, I finished grading my community college students' papers. This is the last writing class most of them will ever take. It's critical thinking/persuasion.

Our topic was a tough one: terrorism. And the readings were even tougher: essays from the American Spectator, from National Commissioners, university
professors, politicians.

This was the question: How have the events of 9/11 shaped the American perspective on terrorism.

Now, give that a second or two. How have the events of 9/11 shaped the American perspective on terrorism?

There is fear. There is stereotyping. There is public policy. But there is no more invincibility.

It took my class three weeks to find that out. By picking apart tomes on "terror," we could define it, identify it, analyze it.

We read. We talked. We asked a lot of questions. In fact, we came up with more questions, harder questions, than the one we were given.

Then we wrote.

My paper began with the last lines of the Broadway musical "Cabaret": "It was the end of the world. And I was dancing with Sally Bowles. And we were both fast asleep."

My conclusion was what one of the authors coined "a wake-up call": how the United States' oblivion collapsed with the Twin Towers.

"Terror" is not a pleasant topic. But these papers were an absolute joy.

Every student took a stand and supported it--well.

Titles were carefully chosen, and transitional phrases were used. There were accusations, projections, calls-to-action, not to mention miraculous editing.

Every several terms, a class emerges from out of nowhere with wisdom, effort, and intelligence.

It just makes the job so worth doing.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Life and Death in the Center of the Universe

Another reason I love living in Ashland is its celebration of everything, particularly, The Days of the Dead.

Dominic's middle school Spanish class decorated sugar skulls.

Reesie's class made calaveras puppets.

These Catrinas cheered from Main Street on Halloween:

And here's our annual display by the check-out desk of the library:

Viva la vida (and los muertos) in Ashland!