Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Real Magic: Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

It is absolutely enchanting, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.

The setting alone--Victorian Paris; London; Munich; New York; and Concord, Massachusetts--pops with color and costumes and caramel apples.

The characters are rich, mysterious, and the plot--a game gone bad between two old old magicians--is different, interesting.

It's a wonder of a read, one that will take you somewhere you've never been, one you'll be thinking about days after you've read (and re-read) the last line.

There, the magic does not end. The alchemy behind the book--Morgenstern's process--that is really something.

The story started as a completely different concept in 2005, morphing into its ultimate manifestation years and revisions later.

30 agents rejected the sweeping, lyrical manuscript that eventually landed Morgenstern six-figures and a movie deal.

The MC, Morgenstern claims, was invented last. How, I wonder? How was that possible? This Celia, she is integral, holds the circus in her very palm--the cover itself.

(While we're on design, you must check out the illustrations that separate the five parts. Hint: it's what you see on one of the Circus rides.)

Better than The Magicians? The next Harry Potter? Twilight rival?

Morgenstern laughs away comparisons.

And she should.

The Night Circus is its own story, a real-life unfolding of paper, of turning of gears.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

It Was Addiction

When I started teaching at the local community college, I was completely caught off guard by the deluge of essays about alcohol and meth addiction/rehab/relapse. For years, most of the narrative papers from my school have been about this struggle, the loss that comes with it, the day-to-day recovery.

I'll tell you what, it's heartbreaking, reading these stories of parents offering their 13 year-olds methamphetamine, of kids being taken away/given back/taken away again. Homes are lost. Jobs are lost. Marriages dissolve.

But in many of these papers, there has been hope. These students have been to the bottom, and have found it isn't pretty, and they've learned that they can make things better for themselves. They can choose to stop using, they can join support groups. They can decide to live again.

Now, though, there's another problem. A different problem. A new one.

For the first time since I've been teaching, the big theme is unemployment.

Sadly, it does make sense.

Oregon's unemployment rate exceeds that of the national average, and in our county here, it's two whole percentage points higher.

My students write of being laid off, of looking (and looking and looking) for work, of being turned away for body piercings or heavy-lifting requirements.

They are losing their homes, their families, their self-worth.

In these stories, I'm not seeing the hope, the will, that comes with the addiction essays.

I'm seeing desperation. Devastation. Despair.

I would like to see this turn around. Of course, I would like to see the job market explode. But, realistically, I want to see my students be stronger, be more active, to take control.

I want them to clean themselves up and look admin. right in the eye. I want them to shake hands with a firm grip, leave behind sparkly applications.

I want them to learn a little from each rejection, to get more determined, more wise, more driven from it.

I want them to keep trying.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Blanca sits on the bleachers
of her cholo's basketball game,
men's D-league.
Thursday night.
She sits
between two brown-eyed babies,
a baby herself.

toenails red,
black stilettos.
No ring on her finger.

She's the same as she was
in eighth grade English:
liquid eyeliner on her lids
full lips
long legs.

talking and laughing during Anne Frank.
Getting referrals to the dean.
Getting detention.

in short, swishy skirts.
Popping gum in the hallway:
"An' I tell him, if he gonna treat me that way, uh uh."

She's the same as she was,
only different, now, too.
The fire in her eyes,
even when her cholo dunks.

in a too-tight pea coat,
tied hard around her.
with sippy cups,
with binkies and bills,
and after the two, with birth control.
Dios knows the cholo isn't worried about that.

checking outside the gym.
Where did they go, those babies?
Where did they disappear?
finding them again.

She sits in the bleachers,
by the open door.
While her cholo drives the ball down,
right into the White Team,

She sits.
Her babies,
talking,laughing, outside.
She sits,
checking her phone,
She doesn't know for what.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why I Love Grading Papers

Okay, there are lots of reasons to not love grading papers (it's tedious, time-consuming, frustrating, etc.).

And a lot of the time, I'd rather be doing other stuff (going on a walk, doing yoga, playing "10 Days in Europe" with my kids).

But there are some things about grading I really do love (beyond the obvious: the excuse to drink fancy coffee, and seeing my students improve).

I like that when I have papers to grade over a weekend, I pack in a bunch of other things around it(this weekend: hiking Mount Ashland, and taking my boys fishing, and having the kids' friends over, and going to breakfast with my good man).

I structure my time, when, usually, I'd be all over the place. Going nowhere. Getting nothing done.

Also, I get to practice what I'm teaching. I get to use the techniques I'm talking about in my own writing. I have to ask myself, Is all of this relevant? Is the story as tight and clean as humanly possible? Are my sentence beginnings different?

And, while I am firing up my neurons, so are my kids. They're doing their homework and playing guitar and building amazing things with Legos. Even The Husband will at least scan Sports Illustrated.

And, the biggest plus: I don't have to cook! I can sit on the sofa or at the table or in bed, and read incredible essays about other people's fascinating lives.

50 papers about "The Most Significant Time of Your Life"?

I'd take that any day over having to fry up a bunch of chicken.