Sunday, January 31, 2010

What the Apocalypse Sounds Like

Since I'm presently teaching my composition students the elements of descriptive writing,appeal to senses is at the forefront of my mind.

So when I saw a movie with Dave today, where the end of the world was more than shown, it was heard, I was intrigued.

The scuttling of a cockroach up a wall; a dry, dusty wind whistling over a collapsed bridge; the scrape of a metal water pump; the scuff of worn boots across cracked asphalt...In the Hughes' brothers' latest film, not only does sound make Armageddon more real to its viewers, it is paramount to its characters' survival. They rely on this sense to keep safe, to get food.

If the flap of a crow's wings and the buzz of silence don't get you, the music definitely will.

The Apocalypse sounds like "The Book of Eli."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dos Gringas, Bombaros, & Anne Frank

The first clue should have been the deserted tunnel that ran from San Ysidro to Tijuana.

It was seventy degrees on the Sunday early afternoon, a sunny day bookended by severe storms.

Yet no one but my cousin's wife, Genny, and I strolled past the graffitied walls, over the bridge and across Avenida Revolucion to the plaza.

My dad had warned me against going into Mexico. My husband kept his phone on the whole time, waiting for the call of how much they wanted to give me back. Neither of my girlfriends would go with me. But Genny would, so we headed over the border in search of skeletons and tin art.

After picking up a poncho and straw hat for Dave and several eskeletos for the kids, I realized that Genny and I were the only shoppers in the alleys. Most of the metal doors had remained shut, and in the last open store, we asked the furniture vendor at what point in the day they would open.

From under butterfly flags, she explained that the stores weren't opening. That because of bad media and the recession, the sellers had gone for good.

She went on to tell us that we were the only "white people" she'd seen in a week. A week!

There were no tourists. There was no money.

On our way back to the bridge, Genny and I visited the Bomberos, our international family of firefighters. There were more engines there than in any station I've ever seen. Do you sell shirts, I asked them. They said they didn't. But one insisted I take his.

Of course, I didn't want to take the man's uniform. He probably only had a couple, if that, and I suddenly felt selfish and thoughtless.

But when the man brought me to the back of the bay, to a room not unlike Dave's in Oregon, and when he pulled a shirt from his bag and handed it over proudly, I accepted with humility.

I thanked the man and hugged him, and as we crossed Avenida Negrete, I held up the shirt to a passing van of policia, who got a good laugh.

In the vast customs building, I looked over my shoulder. Thousands of border crossers were herded like cattle through metal stalls. And not one of them, not one, was "white."

Maybe it's true that Tijuana isn't perfect. Maybe bad things happen there, maybe even to good people. But on this day, the worst thing that happened was that it was tough finding a Diet Coke (Coca Light).

It reminded me of Anne Frank's famous quote: "...Despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hello...From Legoland!

We had so much fun in Legoland, California.

This sign made me giggle.

And this sign summed up everything.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Saddest Book I've Ever Read

On Tuesday between classes, I drove home a half-hour to read more of Still Alice. This debut novel by Lisa Genova chronicles the mental deterioration of fifty year-old Alice Howland--Harvard Professor, author, wife, mother--as early-onset Alzheimer's Disease takes over her mind, her career, her marriage.

My tears plopped shamelessly onto the pages where Alice, once strong and independent, makes memory mistakes at staff meetings; as loneliness swallows her; when she attempts to rely on a preoccupied husband who's in denial.

Genova's work pits the cognitive self against the spiritual one. Alice struggles to categorize her new self between intellect, of which she'd had much, and emotion, which she is beginning to discover.

It's about one woman's search for truth--the sad, hard, complicated truth--while most of her family has given up.

After Alice makes some difficult and unsupported choices, she comes to know the youngest daughter she's never understood.

"'You're so beautiful,'" Alice tells Lydia. "'I'm so afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.'"

'"I think that even if you don't know who I am someday, you'll still know that I love you,'" Lydia says.

"'What if I see you, and I don't know that you're my daughter, and I don't know that you love me?'"

"'Then,'" says Lydia, "'I'll tell you that I do, and you'll believe me.'"

This work gently straddles the line between narrating and teaching. Ultimately, it is a call-to-action. For earlier diagnosis of the crippling disease, for the understanding of its victims.

"I encourage you to empower us, not limit us," Alice reads at a conference. "'Work with us. Encourage [us]...

"'My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment...I will forget today, but that doesn't mean that today didn't matter.'"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cranking Up The Silly

These days, Daney has no sense of humor, especially when it comes to mistakes she's made. Granted, ten is a serious age for a girl who is planning to major in biology at Cornell. But in this family of mostly males, "serious" isn't always the mood.

Instead of deep conversation and philosophy, there are various body noises, lots of running, and the daily Nerf war.

You'd think Daney would be laughing her head off.

She's not.

She can't.

She's not that kind of girl.

But we're working on it. Making fools of ourselves.

Like, I bombed the singing part of "Don't Stop Believin'" during the family Rock Band tournament.

And Dominic laughs at his trademark one-word responses.

Rees tells funny stories of himself when he was a baby.

And when Dave screws up, he says "Sorry" like Saturday Night Live's Gilly.

All this doesn't seem to be making a difference in Daney's loosening up: making mistakes and giggling over it. Kind of the reverse of most parental objectives, I suppose.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

MLK Days

In perfect timeliness, I've recently finished The Help.

This debut novel by Kathryn Stockett is narrated by three Southern voices in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. Two of the narrators are maids; the third is a misfit young white woman who is unmarried but educated. Each tries to balance their lives--love, loss, family, and work--amidst political and social upheaval. Which isn't so different from now.

What is striking, though, is that the Civil Rights Movement happened only 66 years ago. During our parents' lives!

When we were kids, my dad showed us the Park Merced Apartments in San Francisco. This huge building didn't allow any African American tennants until 1971. The year I was born! Even after the Civil Rights Act was passed, discrimination was still taking place. In the west!

The Help reminded me how fortunate we are to live in a tolerant, compassionate community. Ashland is not enormously ethnically diverse, but we have vast varieties of socioeconomic status, of religion, of ages, of sexual orientation, politics, and culture.

It reminded me to keep teaching my kids the essence of the book, of humanity: that we're all just people. That we're all the same.

It reminded me about a trip to Harlem we took our kids on three years ago. Where we had to pay extra for the cabbie to drive us there. Where all the windows and doors were barred up. Where people hung out in groups on doorsteps.

When I'd asked the kids if Harlem is different from Ashland, Daney said, "Yes, really different. There's way more..." she paused, and I held my breath.

Please don't see it, I thought about The Big Difference. Don't see it yet.

Daney went on. "...There's way chicken restaurants."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Breaking the (Environmental) Law

I can't take it.

I can't do it anymore.

If I have to wash out one more mildew-reeking, peanut-butter-slimed, poppy-seed-sprinkled lunch bags, I'm going to die.

And I want to live.

To see at least one book published in my lifetime.


I have to switch to paper bags for a while. I have to. Just for a little bit.

Until I get back on my feet.

But I won't not feel guilty about doing it.

What about you?

Is there any environmental law you have to break?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Where I Live, er, Write

The smoothest, richest coffee in the world, in the sleekest building, served by the most talented, friendly baristas, is on Fourth Street in Ashland, Oregon, at Noble Coffee.

This is where I sip, where I write, where I meet my friends to talk over pretty mochas while Sam roasts beans behind the glass.

There is a story to be written here and about here every day.

Today, for instance, I sipped a hot chocolate, a real hot chocolate, between a seasoned monk and a student from Afganistan.

Today, Caleb gave away drinks to Daney and me. "How many people did you bring in here over the holidays?" he asked. And we both chuckled, because it was a lot.

I've been given business cards, a job offer, and an almanac in Noble.

I've given out praise and tips and half of a carrot muffin.

Noble is where I met my inspiring writing partner. It's where Dave takes me when he gets off shift on the weekends, after I've been with the kids all day and night. It's where I've swapped curriculum with Polly.

Caleb, Kelly, and Jared deserve the success of their booming business. Before they opened (last spring), I didn't drink coffee. And I still don't, really, not unless it's Noble. It's an original blend: smooth, rich, and bold. It's environmentally savvy, too: organic and fair-trade.

I've shared my addiction, sending the World Tour roast all over the nation, and am going to ask about how to get a pound or two to Rwanda.

If you can't get yourself to this amazing place, order some beans by mail. You can grind them up and drip yourself one life-changing espresso.

(pictures from Marisa Haedike at and from, respectively)

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Winningest Losers

As President of my newly formed "Glee" Club (number of members: 1), I nominate the following for Best of "Glee":

Wittiest Female Character: Sue "That's how Sue C's it" Sylvester

Biggest Up-and-Coming Talent: Artie

Most Clever Choreography: The Football team's "All the Single Ladies"

Unforgettable Kurt Scene: "All the Single Ladies"

Finn's Smoothest Song: "Somebody to Love"

Most Hoped-for Showtune in Season 2: "Wig in a Box" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Please MORE! of: Finn's mulleted dad. And Emma

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Gem, To Me

Time online claims that "Precious" is "too powerful for tears."

I disagree.

The way Precious' mother Mary (Mo'Nique) belittles and berates her teenage daughter killed me. And it was nothing compared to the crying I did with Mariah Carey, Precious' social worker, when Mary explains and excuses her abominations.

It is exactly this abuse, this smashing of self worth, that teachers combat daily.

So when Newsweek whines that "Precious" is another movie that keeps down African Americans, I was livid.

What about the essence of the story: how Precious takes back her child? Where she chooses to try, despite her lack of education and skill, to be a good parent? That although, yes, the odds are not in her favor, she is willing to give it her best shot.

How is that unlike the spirit of the first African Americans?

It's the same struggle, is it not? For freedom, for children, for education.

"Precious was lucky to find the alternative school that could help her," Newsweek states. "But that's fiction. In reality, there are far more Preciouses than there are teachers to help them. Movies such as this one allow us to forget that."

How sad. And untrue.

I thought a valuable movie like this reminded us that there are indeed helpful teachers.

Because there are.

A lot of them.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My writerly partner and new good friend, Anjie, talked me into submitting to Skirt magazine's Holiday Writing Contest.

I trust everything Anjie says. Even though I only met her this summer. In the World's Sleekest And Mocha-Yummiest Coffee Place, though. Which added major credibility.

We started talking. Okay, I started talking. Anjie ripped the earphones out of her ears and listened to my diatribe on tailoring curriculum toward clientele, and she handled my interview with grace and wit.

We were both college writing teachers! We were both writers! We both had eight year-olds and had lived in San Francisco!

No way!" I said, "Is your husband a firefighter, too?"

He was a dentist.

But husbands didn't matter, anyway.

Anjie was smart, and I'm a sucker for smart.

So I did the logical thing. I told her I didn't want any more friends.

Then I ran into her in Albertsons. She was with two toeheads. I was in a pirate costume. When I saw her next, it was in the middle of the street. She had green skin and a pointy black hat.

Today Anjie and I wrote together for the sixth or seventh time. When my man came off shift, there we were, on opposite ends of my kitchen table, plinking away on our computer keys and sobbing silently to ourselves.

Anyway, I did as Anjie told me. About the contest, and everything.


I got Runner Up!

To see the story that Anjie helped me tweak to win, click here and scroll toward the bottom.

And to see why she and I are serious birds of a feather, check this out.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Socratic Perspective on Ethics in Education

My old school district was recently rocked by scandal. It seems there was some infidelity among teachers and administration.

Colfax, California, might be small, but allegations of affairs should not have been plastered all over the papers. Careers were ruined and marriages ended.

These were people I went to high school with. Instead of moving to bigger cities to become business reps or doctors, they got their credentials and returned to their communities.

They've gone to every Falcons football game, twenty years running. In their classes are their own teachers' grandkids. They've bought houses by their old bus stops.

If these were not teachers, though, would their private lives have mattered? Would they have been publicized?

If these were insurance agents, or nurses, or lawyers, would anyone care about the "news?"

It's been my experience that for some reason, teachers are held to the highest moral standard.

Why is that?

Is it not enough that educators sacrifice salary to care for kids and nudge them toward the benchmarks?

After five or six years of college, with graduate degrees, teachers begin working for maybe forty grand. They'll top out at sixty after thirty years of collecting homework, grading essays, and chaperoning dances.

And they are never to be seen in a bar, or on a date, or getting a speeding ticket. If they cross a moral line? Devastation.

In essence, society is expecting a highly educated yet severely underpaid population to provide an ethical example.

Is that fair?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mairy Godmother

My mom knew what she was doing when she picked her younger sister, Mary, to be my godmother. Since the beginning, Mary and I hit it off. She had this chest in her room in San Francisco; it was filled with toys, and every time I visited her, I'd choose one.

Each Christmas Eve, when we were allowed to open one gift, I'd find the present with Mary's round writing. Before I could even read.

When I was seven, Mary and I took Muni to Macy's downtown. We rode the escalator to the second floor, where Mary bought me a brown paisley-printed skirt and a Betsy Clark watch. I wore the skirt and the watch down the escalators and out of the store, feeling excited and happy and special.

I stayed with Mary in her flat on Lawson Street, in her red-carpeted apartment on Dolores, and in her house in the Sunset.

Mary made peppermint cake and black-bottom cupcakes. She worked in a hospital and had a son, Greg, for whom she baked tiny treats to go inside his eight-inch Cookie Monster delivery van.

We would take walks, sometimes at Ocean Beach. We went to doll shows and listened to Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" over and over and over.

Today we sang "Sweet Caroline" together into ceramic salad tongs in my kitchen. Our birthdays are this month: I'll be 39, and she'll be 50-something.

It's been almost two generations of singing and laughing and crying, and an almost impossible amount of talking. We talk books, and men, kids and corn. We talk chocolate and coffee and sex. We try to figure out my mom, who's been gone twelve years now. We miss her.

When Dave and I moved to Oregon sixteen years ago, we thought it was accidental. It wasn't. Mary lived a couple of hours up I-5.

Mary is the grandma my babies don't have: she checks in with their math, sends them books, and reminds me to be patient.

This evening, Mary and I took the kids to Toys R Us.

When Rees strutted out with the Lego Battle of Endor tucked under his arm, I knew exactly what he was feeling.
Happy New Year!

You deserve the best 2010 ever!

What do you hope will happen in the next 365 days?