Thursday, November 15, 2012

When work isn't work

Sometimes, my job becomes a grind. There are too many meetings that feel unproductive, too many students needing something from me, and too many assignments waiting for me to stick a grade to them. I feel burdened and forget the joy. This is how I've felt for the past few weeks, my enthusiasm dying a bit under the weight of my semester. Along with my students, I've been doing the countdown to fall break, a week that falls way too late in a semester, arriving after thirteen weeks of class. It's taken tons of my energy to get through the last couple of weeks, having not only to cajole myself into participation, but finding that I needed to also don a bit of a cheerleading outfit to keep both myself and my students going.

Fortunately, though, the air cleared a bit today, most likely because I knew that next week meant a week of break, a week devoted to relaxing, hanging with family, laughing, soaking in hot springs, cooking, reading, and hopefully doing a bit of my own writing. I could breathe relief. And with that sense, nothing felt onerous. Not even a meeting.

Today, I spent an hour and a half meeting with a small group of faculty and administrators to put together questions for a revised Student Opinion of Instruction, an evaluative device that has been through lots of operational snafus over the last couple of years, proving of little use for either constituency. Together, we hashed through language, discussing what we were needing to learn from such categories as Effective Communication and Flexibility in Approaches to Teaching. I enjoyed not only hearing my fellow faculty member's reactions to certain questions, but also found it instructive to hear exactly what Deans wanted to know when it came to measuring any of these categories. We debated a bit at times, but most of the time there was a natural consensus, a supportive atmosphere of revising and collaborating to put together a useful measure for students to evaluate instructors. With ease, we came up with next steps to get input from all faculty and from students before finalizing the questions. Dare I say, an enjoyable meeting.

Today, after plowing through some innocuous assignments and a bit of tedium, I found myself with one last pile of grading to finish before I could officially declare things caught up for now.

Fortunately, it was a pile of digital stories. As I began watching them, I became awed by my students. They triumphed with an assignment that gave me great anxiety because I had never taught it before--I had only created one digital story more than two years ago. I feared the project would tank, that students would struggle and not be able to produce a digital story. I had no exit strategy for the assignment--it had to succeed.

Even though I had support of two colleagues who were piloting this project in their classes, even though I had a multimedia graphics person who could be of some assistance, I felt alone, watching my students stress at times over all aspects of their digital stories. They worried whether their story was worth telling. They struggled with developing narrative arcs that contained an inciting incident and transformation. They grappled with all the dimensions of storytelling. And then they battled with movie technologies that I knew little about. I watched them lose parts of their story and have to rebuild the visuals. Yet, they never complained.

Once my students got going, they got going. Their stories are beautiful. Not only are they narrating with an attention to pacing, with an attention to the affordances of audio, they are heeding all the instruction about visuals focused on throughout the semester, clearly demonstrating their attention to the power of visuals as a way to enhance narrative. Their choices are thoughtful and their use of silence through a black screen or a static visual is artful. These students got their rhetoric on.

Most importantly, though, I am honored by their courageous stories and willingness to share them with each other, with me. A project like this would fail at the beginning of class because it needs trust, not only in each other and in me, but trust in their ability to compose.

My students inspire me. I am thankful for this batch of grading to sit with, to linger with, to replay, because I want to listen to their stories as I watch them again and again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night

It is election night, and I am alone in my basement with a world of friends. Originally, I imagined going to my neighbor's house to watch the election returns, a party in the making.  But due to the anxiety all my friends seem to have surrounding this election, most people I know have chosen to sit this through alone in their homes, only surrounded by pets and a partner.

One television station is not enough for me. While Rachel Maddow holds my center stage, my steady barometer calling things carefully and cautiously, I also dash quickly between the Huff Post, NY Times, and my local news station, comparing results, happy when they all align.

In between reads of the electoral tally, I shift to Facebook, wondering what friends have posted, hoping to catch a bit of the optimism train. It's electric. When I post the win of Elizabeth Warren!!!, only to see friends Like it immediately and post their own cheers for her win, I realize I am at an election party, thrown by social media.

We high five each other in small status screens. We cheer with our ENTHUSIASM!!! and are careful not to celebrate too quickly.

And while the mantra is too close to call, I will remain steady, hopeful, ready to celebrate online.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cycling to Hope--Rising from Ashes

Today I spent in happy documentary land, watching three very different films at the Starz Denver Film Festival. T. C. Johnstone's beautiful film Rising from Ashes chronicles the spirited journey of the Rwandan cycling team, coached by the fallen cyclist "Jock" Boyer. It is a story of triumph, as the former cycling champion Jacques Boyer, who recently was released from jail and is suffering in his own despair, finds his own path out of darkness as he brings a sense of hope to a group of Rwandan cyclists who have survived a history of genocide.

The film features a group of cyclists who were children during the years of the Rwandan genocide. With Boyer's training and encouragement, these group of cyclists find a way to transform their pain into  a chance for not only them, but also their country, to heal from the scarring of its past. As the young men cycle their way into competition, one of them, Adrien Niyonshuti, shows the most promise. With coaching and long hard training, Niyonshuti earns a spot at the 2012 London Olympics in the mountain biking race. One of the most poignant moments of the film (and there are innumerable moments) is when Niyonshuti's friends, family, teammates, and fellow Rwandans watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, with Niyonshuti marching into the stadium carrying the Rwandan flag. At this moment, Rwanda is more than a country torn by genocide.

By the time the film ends, you want to cheer for the possibilities that cycling provides for these Rwandan men, whom like Boyer, are "rising from ashes" of their past.

Performance Makes a Film--Casting By

When I go to the movies, it's usually the performances that drive the film for me. Sure, a film needs a good story, cinematography, and a host of other cinematically related musts, but without the right combination of performer to role, the film can't shine. The unsung hero of this matchmaking affair is the casting director, and it is Tom Donahue's documentary, Casting By, that makes this argument.

Donahue's central premise in the film is that the casting director has not gotten the attention she deserves; movies would not achieve success without these agents of vision providing the right fit for particular roles. The film centers around the story of Marion Dougherty, a casting director whose 50+ year career included casting such notables as Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Al Pacino, Glenn Close, Robert Redford, Jon Voigt, and Bette Midler in the early stages of their career. 

Throughout the film, various actors, casting directors, and film industry notables proclaim the brilliance of Dougherty. Jon Voigt owes his casting in Midnight Cowboy to Dougherty's belief in his potential to be a star. Bette Midler credits Dougherty's casting of her in the film Hawaii (the role of a missionary) as the ticket that gave her enough money to move to NYC and begin her rise to stardom. Dougherty relied on her intuition, and it was that intuition that made her suggest Dustin Hoffman, an unknown NYC dramatic actor be cast for the role of Benjamin in The Graduate. 

Dougherty not only had a huge influence on the careers of numerous stars and ultimately the success of numerous films due to the right combination of actor and role, but she also helped influence innumerable other casting directors, earning her a deserved place of honor in the Academy. Unfortunately, despite a series of petitions and pleas from top directors and Academy Award winning actors and actresses, the Academy denied a request to honor Dougherty with a special Academy Award for all her years and successes as a casting director.

This film serves as that award, even if Dougherty did not live to see it (she died at age 88 before the film was completed). If you are a film lover, Donahue's testament is pure delight, filled with innumerable clips from award winning films that were touched by Dougherty's gut instinct of casting. From now on, when I watch the credits roll by to note the soundtrack and place of film, I will also be watching for the Casting by credit, now knowing what a star role he/she plays.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Every Food Conservator Has Gotta Have One

I'm in love with my immersion blender.

She saves me. Well, she doesn't actually save me, but she saves some food from perishing, from a prolonged refrigerator death, and as a result, saves me, because I can't stand to see food die.

This afternoon, while staring down a gallon size ziploc bag holding a bulging bulk of leftover Indian spiced roasted cauliflower, I spied the half empty container of chicken stock. Now I usually prefer to make my own stock, especially since I always have veggies lingering that make for a tasty stock, but when I think soup and want it within a 1/2 hour, I resort to store-bought.

Into a pot went the stock; I added the cauliflower and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Then, grabbing my love, I twizzled and blended until I had a deliciously thick hearty bowl of soup.

Earlier this week, she rescued broccoli, potatoes, onions, and parsley along with the ingredients for a homemade stock (celery, carrots, onions, kale). Once again, a simple combination of stock and veggie equals a perfectly textured hearty bowl of soup.

Not only is she my love. She is my savior.

Friday, October 19, 2012

National Day On Writing

This year's #WhatIWrite twitter hashtag for the National Day on Writing inspired me to think beyond the literal of what I write. Rather than think of a list, I immediately went to the why of what I write. 

I write what I write because I have a lot to say about things. And if I say all those things aloud, people will label me chatty, self absorbed, or a bit off kilter. Blogging saves me from such a demise. 

I write what I write because it's my job. Scribbled comments in the margins of student papers, multimodal assignments, revisions of to-do lists, constant emails, and content for class are a reminder of my place in the semester, of weeks behind and weeks forward. 

I write what I write because I am quirky. It's easy to fantasize my normality when I don't put a detailed lens to my obsessive tendency to recycle vegetables and other leftovers into new life, my obsessive reliance on google to help me figure out anything medical, and my preoccupation with anything related to food. My essays need this character trait.

I write what I write because I have to. When I don't, I am missing.

Musical Inspiration: Brandi Carlile, Ingrid Michaelson

Monday, October 15, 2012

Food Recharge

Lately I've miscalculated, believing I was keeping pace, balancing carefully between overextending and chilling. I haven't felt particularly stressed, but there exists an undercurrent of always knowing there's something to do, something to get done, something in a pile that is calling me. When I get too close to the edge of canceling everything, I simply start to cancel a little here and there. And today, after a day that felt like it took extra energy to finish, I am thankful to come home and blare music as loud as I want and escape, instead of my original plan to go see a free screening of a film with a friend.

And those who know me know what point I must be at to pass on a film,. Today, I'm close to that point where the only way I can recharge is to retreat. I usually am energized by people, by lots of socializing, by plenty of stimuli. When I get tired, though, I get tired. My days are usually filled with needing to put forth just that extra bit of energy students need since we're at Week 9 in the semester. They need a break, and the semester says no break for five more weeks (the long haul of fall). So, it's up to me to summon my inner cheerleader, my pogo stick, and my energizer bunny, even though I too long for a break. Most days I'm good, full of extra, but some days, like today, I am lagging, tired.

Fortunately, it doesn't take much for me to recharge. Food nurtures and when I cook, even if it's only for myself, it is a nurturing act to pay attention to its powers. Our house never lacks for something to combine into a meal, even if unplanned. On my drive home, I believed I was coming home to defrosted tofu, planning for some spicy baked tofu, accompanied with whatever I wanted to invent with the variety of leftover roasted vegetables and raw vegetables. Instead, though, I came home to still solidly frozen tofu. After a brief rummage in the freezer to retrieve the frozen uncooked shrimp, I started to play with food possibilities.

It is in the play that my day is forgotten. I am on the hunt, sorting through the randomness of my refrigerator, pantry, and counter, pondering combinations. I know I want the clean taste of fresh food, not overcooked. I know I want a bit of contrasts of texture. I know I want a little zing. I decide on  greens (kale and spinach) sauteed in olive oil with garlic, onions, Anaheim pepper, and freshly squeezed lemon. The leftover roast potatoes I spruce up with a quick broil to crisp. Playing with the food, creating from random ingredients, always invigorates me, at least enough to write a bit, to answer some emails, to think beyond my day. 

Seriously Dorothy--there's no place like food.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

National Coming Out Day

Sometimes, October 11th arrives and leaves without me feeling like I need to blare show tunes, be my own George Hearn proclaiming out loud "I am what I am". But most October 11ths arrive and leave with the need to shout loudly "I'm proud, I'm queer" in a butch rendition of a high school cheerleader. It is a day of mixed emotion, a day that reminds me that although I've been out for more than thirty years, homophobia still rears its head. And on the eve of a vice-presidential election, I do worry about my freedoms, about the hate that still wants to keep me less than equal.

On campus today, we celebrated the day by placing tables out on the main hallway, hanging signs celebrating Gay Pride, sitting tall and proud. A group of courageous students sat with me for two hours, chatting with allies, while the majority of people walked by us, not stopping, not making eye contact, even if the cake we were serving looked delicious. I'm used to that, but somehow today I thought it would be different.

Recently, a homophobe(s) ripped off a GLBT symbol from a campus history timeline posted in the middle of campus, leaving a blank space where a celebration of the campus' GLBT Resource Center once made its public mark. That act felt personal because of my work to establish the center, because of all the work I put into making the campus safe for GLBT students, faculty, and staff. To lead in the shadows of intolerance takes my vigilance, my strength, and sometimes a bit of my heart.

And it was my expectation of things being different that stung. In response to the recent campus event, the President of the college sent out a very strong email proclaiming her commitment to inclusiveness and establishing a clear statement about intolerance and bigotry. Even with this genuine support from the top, people didn't show up. Being an ally means showing up, means support.

It is a topsy turvy moment, a crossroads of a day. I cannot celebrate the day without the memory that tomorrow is the anniversary of Matthew Shephard's death. I cannot celebrate the day without remembering that I cannot marry.

But fortunately, when my own seesaw steadies, I celebrate the day being so out and proud. That is mine.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Food Conservator Strikes Again

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) season brings on my compulsive need to recycle food. Sometimes when I set out on my mission, I am totally uncertain about whether the noble act of using food multiple times in different ways will yield something edible. Most of the time, the results are tasty, even delicious; however, there are times that my concoctions and creations yield bites I simply tolerate. Last evening, when I assembled this new creation, I felt uncertain.

My challenge began with staring down a soup bowl's worth of leftover lemon-ricotta kale dip (recipe followed exactly except for the omission of the nutritional yeast). When I am faced with leftover dip, I grow concerned that it will squat in the refrigerator, eventually aging beyond palatability. Dip is something reserved for gatherings; it is not a member of my kitchen's regular food group. This dip also presented an extra challenge since Nan's initial reaction was "Ew--kale dip?" Fortunately, even though not her favorite, our dinner guests and I found it tasty.

When I pondered what to do with its remains, I zeroed in on the ricotta ingredient and thought, veggie lasagne. After all, the kitchen contained most of the needed ingredients: the CSA had delivered weeks of broccoli, yellow squash, and onions, and our harvest of garden tomatoes seemed endless.

What follows is a rough recipe/description of the process, since I didn't measure a thing. First, I made a very light tomato sauce, sauteeing a variety of tomatoes (complete with skin and seeds), onion, and garlic in olive oil. After cooking for approximately 15 minutes (until the tomatoes split apart and onions softened), I let it sit and cool to warm, thickening a bit, but without that thick consistency that tomato paste gives a sauce.

When I layered the lasagne, I only used a thin layer of sauce (enough to lightly spread on the layer without fully covering what's beneath). I did this with all the ingredients, layering but always leaving space where you could see between the layers.

Here is the order from bottom to top:
Sauce, lasagne noodles, ricotta-kale dip, scattering of raw vegetables (sliced mushrooms, broccoli pieces, diced yellow squash), shredded parmesan cheese
Sauce, lasagne noodles, ricotta-kale dip, vegetables, shredded parmesan cheese
Sauce, lasagne noodles, mozzarella cheese

Cook covered in foil. Remove foil for final browning. Seriously delicious and relatively easy. Plus, of course, you'll feel great that you have recycled ingredients into a new beginning.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sunday Eves

For the past eight weeks, my Sunday evenings have been devoted to writing. While I didn't particularly like having to wait until the end of the weekend, most weekends, I knew that this semester I had asked for challenge at work. Teaching first, textbook revision/writing second, and personal writing third. Even though this sometimes made me grumpy, timing actually worked fine--I could write knowing that work wasn't waiting. I could fall into my writing without worries of unfinished prep for the morning's class.

Tonight is the first Sunday without any impending writing; my eight-week workshop ended this past week, and tonight I am without a writing assignment. I am without an impending deadline. I am without external motivation. A half hour ago I celebrated this, and then instantly, felt as though something was amiss; my evening felt unfamiliar. Writing had become a habit in a short eight weeks.

I have my own writing assignments and deadlines, so these next weeks will be a test to see how well I can motivate myself to keep my fingers moving, to keep working at craft. I'm excited to work on some final revisions for a couple of pieces, happy to be able to focus my attention to sentence level, diction, and stylistic tuning. Even though I do that through some of early drafts, I am usually too overwhelmed with thematic revision, still essaying my way to meaning.

Whether I call this goals or ambition, I am walking in unfamiliar territory, walking in my own desires and motivations.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On Teaching

Since the beginning of the semester, I have been thinking about the semester, about my workload, about the challenges I gave myself this semester. For the past couple of years, due to political personnel issues at work, I have given myself teaching schedules that didn't require tons of attention and time on campus. It was an escape. A way to deal with my job. There were times during those two years when I perused job boards consistently, at times pondering moving in order to change jobs. Things would get so bad that sometimes I would enter a class immediately after an hour conversation with colleagues, spinning in distress. My mind wasn't in the game. I spaced out more often in class, trying to recover a bit of myself. Fortunately, despite this, I still did a good job, but not a great one.

I hadn't really thought about the depth of those two years much until Friday when I took a teacher narrative workshop. As I wrote and reflected, I realized that those years placed me at a crossroads of decision, a reckoning with my current job. During what I recall as two years of job hell, I found solace and sanity by returning to my writing, taking writing workshops and working with a writing coach. This redirected my attention away from work and back to a practice of craft I had missed for decades. Not only did this save me, in a way, but it also gave me ways to connect back. I brought my experiences into the classroom and found myself relating to my students on a new level of authenticity.

During the spring semester, my writing came first. Weekends were first devoted to my own writing, to assignments for my workshop. Only after that was done, did I turn to prepping for classes and grading. Fortunately, my prepping demanded little, since my schedule was easy (nothing new in terms of prep and classes I could wing at the last minute). Early in the spring semester, when I finalized my fall schedule, I opted for challenge, deciding that if I were to continue at my job, I had to cease being lazy.

With this new schedule this fall (new class, new text, all F2F), I am piled under at times, stressed by the enormity of the work I need to do for classes, pissed that my writing has to come after. For four weeks, I've spent most of my time bitching about my exhaustion, my heavy workload, my shitty schedule that I gave myself. Yet, for four weeks, I go into all my classes smiling, engaged with students, laughing, and finding that we have begun to hit our stride with a nicely developing sense of community. Even though I teach three classes back-to-back-to-back with only a quick 30 minutes for lunch, I am energized when done. And so far, I've done a fairly good job of using that 30 minute lunch to actually sit and eat with colleagues, rather than multitasking with the computer and food. I have full days, and by the time Thursday rolls around, I don't want to do much, and fortunately, often have the luxury of the day to recover.

During the teacher narrative workshop, I wrote my way toward some sense of peace and gratitude around my struggles with balancing work and writing. I do get to do it all in a way, but I have to go about life a bit more carefully in terms of time, at least for now. Socializing needs to be kept at somewhat of a minimum, and when I know that I have several things coming up, I need to work ahead. On weekends, I need to devote an entire day to nothing but school and writing. Down time isn't really an option, at least if I want both work and writing.

And honestly, it ain't all that terrible. Yes, I spent hours this weekend working, but it's not so awful that working means closely reading an Annie Dillard essay that reminds me to slow down. It's not so awful that working means teaching myself about the artistic, musical, literary, architectural, and philosophical ideas that defined the Realism period. My brain is alive and I am challenged.

To stretch myself does mean some stress, but out of that stress brings a sense of life, of active engagement, of pushing my boundaries a bit rather than resting it out.

On the eve of week five, I am still excited, still slightly nervous, and grateful.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sudah makan?

I am spoiled when it comes to neighborhood food choices. Platte Park has no shortage of restaurants, and choosing between some of the great spots on Broadway (Azucar, Buffalo Doughboy, Capital Tea) and South Pearl Street (Park Burger, Sushi Den, Black Pearl, Kaos Pizza) can make an indecisive girl dizzy. Now, however, I have found a new go-to place for a delicious inspired Malaysian meal--Makan Malaysian Cafe

Nan and I decided to have an impromptu lunch out on Friday, finally finding the time to give this two-and-a-half month old neighborhood restaurant a try. We walked in, and not only were we immediately greeted by a waitstaff and a welcoming light space, but we realized that our neighbors were there having lunch. When we sat down at an open table next to them, they immediately introduced us to their two new friends, Pravine and James, who got up to shake our hands. They had traveled from Morrison to this part of town so they could have some Malaysian food. In two months, James was headed to travel around Thailand and Vietnam, ultimately teaching English abroad for awhile. Our neighbors gushed about the food, swearing to the glory of the Curry Puff and Kari Ayam (chicken curry). For awhile, the six of us chatted, all comfortably from our separate tables.

The restaurant is a small space, with one row of tables that seat two or four; they can easily be combined for larger parties. The tables are positioned close enough to share conversations, but separate enough to converse with your dining companion. There's also a small community table and a few wooden stools at a counter, a place to sit and grab a cup of espresso and a Malaysian pastry. 

Usually, when Nan and I are venturing into new menu territory, we try for different dishes, wanting to get a decent sampling of the restaurant's offerings. This time, Mee Siam grabbed us both, and I'd be tempted when returning, to order it yet again. This noodle dish yields a variety of flavors, from the hints of chili spiced noodles to the tangy fresh lime on the plate for a fresh squeezed dressing. Mixed in the dish are shrimp, spongy tofu, and green onions. The dish is garnished with long strips of cooked eggs. For a starter, we ordered the pork and shrimp wontons, a dish of three pouch-like fried dumplings, delicious small bites accompanied with a slightly sweet chili sauce.

Since we were both tired from a long bike ride and hot from the heat, we selected Makan's Teh Halia , their "pick me up" (mixture of Teh Tarik and ginger juice) as a drink. The cool comfort of a milky tea with a zing of ginger perfectly accompanied all the flavors of our dishes. 

What I really love about this new neighborhood spot is that it serves unfamiliar dishes. While the menu has some familiars, such as roti and satay, it has plenty of mystery with dishes such as rendang daging (beef rendang) and nasi lemak. Most of the dishes feature a mix of spices and coconut, characteristic of Malaysian cuisine.

The place has character (the good kind), with small instructions on each table about the best way to eat Malaysian food (fork and spoon for dishes that are served on a plate, fingers for small dishes such as our wontons, and chopsticks for food served in a bowl). Community and a passion of food are clearly evident here. At the top of the menu is the question, "Have you eaten?" (sudah makan?), a typical greeting in Malaysia. Any place that greets me that way is my type of restaurant. When I leave this slice of Malaysia, I can say yes, I have eaten.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Writing Aches

I am writing at the pace of what feels like one word a minute. I stare into the computer, facing that screen, trying to push the words from my hands. Words are on the edge of my tongue, pushing up to the edge of my skin, almost making it through to the outside, slow to emerge. The Rolling Stones play in the background, their steady beat and lyricism of "Wild Horses," and my all time favorite, "Gimme Shelter," help my brain's chatter to dissipate a bit, putting me in the zone of feelings, a place where music takes me.

I've been putting many hours into my writing since Thursday, probably close to fifteen hours. I had an ambitious schedule, that I have almost met. After laboring all day Thursday over what felt like a terribly shitty first draft, I realized that it had promise, and I am now almost finished with my workshop submission piece. For several months, I've been pondering submitting a piece to Slice magazine for their themed issue on Obsession (due August 31st), and finally a week ago, I committed to myself and am revising and revising, hoping I have the nerve to send it off. Finally, I have a weekly 500-word assignment to complete, and feel like after breaking to eat, breaking to write this, I can return, able to generate the beginnings of a draft.

What I know I should do, but am too lazy to do at the moment, is initially draft it in my journal. If I remove the barrier of the keys, I usually am able to generate writing more quickly, even if rough, because I don't edit as I write. I tell my students never to compose initially on the computer, but I do. Even when it causes pain. Even when it threatens to interfere with my words.

When writing aches, as it has for a bit this evening, I am much more sympathetic to my students, ready to go into my writing classes tomorrow and talk about writing processes, sharing my advice, my truths, and ways I don't listen to my advice.

Back to the Stones.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

First Week Smiles

For three days I've been smiling, downright giddy, and deeply thankful that I have the coolest motherfucking job in the world. Even though I gave myself a ridiculous schedule, cramming three classes into my Mondays and Wednesdays, I find myself elated, energized, excited to be where I am all day long. And on Wednesdays, after teaching and my writing class, I get to come home, slowly chill, reflect, and begin a long weekend of work, writing, and of course, play.

Starts of the semester are always filled with a bit of awkwardness, an innocence before experience, and an expansive sense of possibility. Class periods are spent noticing the silences, finding ways to coax voices, beginning to establish community. It's not a quick process, and the more patient I am, the more present I am. Early in the semester, only good has gone on in class. I'm not feeling tired, not prone to any crankiness, and I believe that my students are right there with me.

And so the semester, just one week old for me, is off to a damn good start. Today, in my Comp I class I felt uber excited talking about rhetoric, thrilled when students understood the complexity of the relationships of purpose, audience, and context. They're engaged with analysis, able to read visual texts, and smart about the world. Even though I only had forty minutes after the class ended until my next class, I used that time to eat and chat with colleagues about a few things, rather than madly trying to answer emails in between bites of food.

In my Humanities class I did a brief introduction to the Romantic Era and then charged the students to embody the spirit of romanticism. That gave me permission to conduct class outdoors, in nature, and while there, they wrote and drew pieces inspired by the smells, sounds, sights, imagination, and anything else they individually channeled. When I gave them the opportunity to share, many volunteered. I closed class sharing my piece: "A Treatise on the Value of Outdoor Education." I received applause and walked back inside chatting with a student.

And to finish off my afternoon, my creative writing class began to dig into poetry, understanding that rhyme doesn't need to reign supreme. One of my favorite things is to have them generate a list of their favorite words and put one word from each student on the board without them knowing where the whole activity is going. Once all the words are up there, they are challenged to write a minimum of 16 lines using at least eight words. Today, the challenge included bamboozled, spontaneous, crunchy, motherfucker, tortillion, and remember. Again, I wrote along with them, sharing my piece at the end of class. The more I am writing with my students, the more vulnerable I am, the better the community and trust. Ultimately, this results in deeper learning for them and a more gratifying experience for me.

When I walked down the hallway after class and ran into my Dean, she asked if I had just come out of class since I was all smiles. When I got home, I asked Nan if she remembered me being that happy with my job. She replied that I am always like this at the beginning of the semester. Here's hoping the smiles last longer. For now, I will delight in the innocence and the promise of infinite possibility.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tripping down Memoiry Lane

If you asked me a year ago whether I had a memoir in me, I would have stared puzzled, thinking no way. But sometime during this past winter that changed after I took a memoir workshop, believing I was simply there to mine material for memoir type essays. No way did I have a longer work in me. When I left the workshop, though, I had a small journal filled with potential scenes, motivations, random memories all focused around the seven years I lived in NYC. Since then, the concept has grabbed me and now I have surrendered, realizing that if I don't write my way through those years, I will want--want for the understanding, want for the revisiting, want for capturing a glimpse of those years with my slightly aged being.
My apartment was on the 4th floor,
two left windows were my views of the street. 

This summer, I finally began writing, working on an essay about the apartment I lived in on 1st and 1st from 1979-1986. The essay, though, did not want to contain itself to that and begged for answers to questions, leaving me with a range of territory to explore. While the essay brought the apartment back into my present, a recent trip to NYC delivered its presence.

Last month, wandering the streets of the East Village, I noted all that had changed, all that remained, and tried to let whatever moments surfaced leave impressions, rather than dissect the experience through my head. The visceral of sitting in Tompkins Square Park and hearing police sirens alert the local homeless that the detective had arrived, helped me travel back a bit to the early 1980s, when squatters and addicts' naps were disturbed by those same sirens. Walking down my old block, heading east down 1st Street from 2nd Avenue, brought only one familiar landmark--the Catholic Worker. Rather than hurrying past, as I often did to escape the  stares of the homeless, I lingered, peering in the open windows on a hot summer day, stopping and breathing in the familiar.

Later that evening, I returned to the street with Nan to dine at Gabrielle Hamilton's restaurant Prune, several doors west of my old apartment. After dinner, Nan and I walked to the front of my apartment, staring up at the fire escape and windows, noting which windows held my past. Nan snapped some photos, and while she captured a shot of the buzzer, a woman about to unlock the door asked Nan, "What are you doing?" I told the woman I used to live there. When I found out she lived there and had been there over 18 years, I asked her about some of the people I used to know in the building. She had stories to tell and helped spur some of my own memories about my neighbors. When I asked her what her apartment number was, she answered, "4D." My old apartment. I couldn't resist and asked her if she would be willing to let us see the apartment. And so, riding the tiny elevator those four flights, entering the door that I unlocked and locked almost daily, peering into the kitchen and seeing the same stove that held many meals, has begun to clear the bleary lens of my twenties, spurring me to trip a bit further into my past.

I have begun to read through journals from those years, cracking myself up with some of my moaning woeful tales of love and heartache, but more importantly reading stories about some early band gigs, complete with details and my commentary. The journal also holds names and events that help me picture certain instances, reminding me of the crazy edge that some of my nights held. Most significantly, though, it contains pages and pages of writing--bits of songs, noteworthy news items to use as fodder for writing (I am still apparently enamored with the concept of the Tecopa pupfish), and half started stories/poems/character sketches. Some of the material is worth revisiting, but what it holds more than that is a clearer truth into the years I stopped writing. All the time I lived in NYC I wrote and wrote, never abandoning my musical and writing passion. Even though my early undergrad years had damaged my ego some, providing me an easy scapegoat for not committing to writing, they did not stop me. Leaving the city and detouring into the suburbs and a semblance of suburban life accompanied a distancing of my art.

As I revisit, I imagine a series of oh shit moments, tears, surprise, and a nagging nostalgia for a time that for now is very alive.

Musical inspiration: Yacht, Iron & Wine, Blind Faith

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Summer surrender

At the beginning of this summer, and truthfully, most summers, I begin with a mental list of goals. They include the mundane (clean out the closet, clean out the garage, organize the clutter of my home workspace) and the unfinished projects (convert old cassette tapes of my music to digital, transfer hours of oral history videos of my parents to digital and begin to organize into a Sundance worthy family documentary, and re-teach myself how to play banjo). They include putting lots of miles on my bicycle. They include prepping for the fall semester. They include writing and revising.

And now, as I am just two weeks away from returning to campus for the kick off into the fall semester, and facing the next two weeks with being on campus two days a week, I take stock and realize summer had a different plan. I have cycled a bit, but have not put the usual miles on my bike as past summers. While I might attribute this to the ridiculous heat of June and July, there is a different culprit. This same unexpected intrusion has also been the cause of why most of my goals are still in the same state as May--undone and often untouched.

Now, I'm not one for goals. You might actually refer to me as the goal avoider. Ask me to articulate a goal, and I shudder, afraid to set something for fear of disappointment. But, truthfully, there are goals set, even if only in my head. These goals, however, don't matter enough for me to prioritize them. Instead, summer is more of a journey, a path that I set with intentions, but a path that always has its own route. I just follow.

And this past summer that journey was one of travel. I travel most summers, but this summer felt differently. At first, I believed it must be because I will have spent about 30 days (roughly 1/3 of my time off) sleeping away from home. But when I started adding up previous summers, nights in other beds usually falls within that time frame, sometimes even exceeding that amount. This summer, though, I never felt like the giant expanse of summer, the time to have days faced with nothingness, the time to kick into a habit, because our trips never allowed for more than a few weeks at home. Those few weeks were usually filled with catching up with friends (something I had neglected most of the spring semester due to juggling too much), life maintenance (hair cuts, dog grooming, oil changes), and a bit of home care.

I am not complaining, though, because I would not trade the vastness and diversity of all the roads traveled for that expanse of summer nothingness. Life tends to deliver what I need rather than what I thought I needed, and for that, I am thankful. Instead of accomplishment, I needed experience--to immerse myself in different worlds; I needed to regenerate. From the unfamiliar horse farms of Lexington, Kentucky to the enchanted skies of New Mexico, I peered outside in order to get inside, understanding myself a bit more by listening to stories from strangers and walking on paths filled with plenty of sky.

During our most recent trip to New Mexico, I began to take stock and own what summer had bequeathed to me. Nan and I intended the trip to be a bit of a writing retreat, assuming that several hours a day would be spent writing and revising. I lugged my computer, several journals, and a folder with revisions and notes. I only touched the journal, briefly, one time. Instead of writing, I reflected on our recent trip to NYC, on revisiting my apartment and the memories that kicked into my consciousness (fodder for my memoiresque coming of age thing that I cannot call more than a thing because committing to it overwhelms me). I watched people and filed away character traits and potential plots. I soaked in hot springs and enjoyed hours of spacing out and napping in a hammock, so relaxed that I let little nuggets of writing ideas dissipate into the adobe sky.

Rather than assume I had not done all the writing intended (the summer goal that truly matters), I looked at what I had accomplished and realized I should stop chiding myself for not having done more. I revised an essay I have been working on for many years (and am still revising it), I revised a couple of micro-essays I have targeted as potential pieces to submit this fall, I blogged several times a month, and I began to draft material for my NYC memoiressayesque thing. Summer had given me the time to be, to breathe in the stillness that nature affords me. Summer had given me space to understand some of the meaning behind some of the essays I'd been revising. Summer had taught me that I cannot always plan.

I finally surrendered to summer at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. While wandering around a labyrinth outside its entrance, I realized just how ridiculously superstitious I am, determined that I could not simply jump over the boundaries of each path to get back to the beginning, because breaking out of the labyrinth's set paths meant that I would curse all my dreams (all writing erased and ceased by that simple action). Holding writing in my awareness, I walked inside and outside the former home of this 1920s salon artist/writer, noticing that everyone I passed was writing. Walking in the midst of a writing retreat, I didn't look at their practice as something other, but instead, I belonged, a practicing writer. Standing in the front of the building, looking up toward the DH Lawrence painted bathroom windows, I realized that I would not change a thing about this summer.

Musical inspiration: Lumineers, Vampire Weekend, Wagner

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Atlantic City--An Eclectic Combo

I have a distinct memory of walking down the Boardwalk in Atlantic City as a kid, thrilled by the sight of Mr. Peanut strolling the boardwalk, a beacon to the nearby location of roasting peanuts. He no longer visits, but memories of him hung with me as I wandered the Atlantic City boardwalk recently. Even though the boardwalk held very little from those years, it welcomed me with its grittiness, rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and endless possibilities for amusement. In two quick days, I walked and walked despite the heat, sampling amusement and eats from early morning to late evening.

The gritty can be found in the slumped homeless, scattered lightly on the boardwalk. One morning we found an old woman in a wheelchair, hunched over, hoping this signified a deep sleep rather than an early expiration. The previous evening she could be found awake, hanging out in the wheelchair outside a casino.  Further down the boardwalk, a wailing woman held church on her own bench in front of the ocean, a bible and collection box to her side, belting Kumbaya and other spirituals for anyone passing by. Occasionally, some would be moved and give her some change, always eliciting a "god bless you" pause in the spiritual. 

The gritty could also be found in the psychic parlors along the boardwalk. Everywhere I walked, a psychic offered readings for only $5. The first evening, I simply looked in at the assortment of offerings, women in back booths, a hidden mystique promising deep revelations for little money. Feeling overwhelmed by all the choices, I deferred to the next day, when late morning didn't hold lots of open places. Quickly, I entered one of these places (not the one pictured in the photo), looking around until a distracted woman, probably in her early 20s, emerged from behind curtains, texting away on her phone. This should have been a sign to leave, based on her disinterest, but I had entered and was determined to give away a bit of money. Since $5 only got me a character analysis but $10 got me a palm reading, I chose the latter.

We sat in a small booth, while Nan hovered nearby to listen and watch the psychic perform her magic. The psychic asked me to make two wishes and then instructed me to tell her one. "Do I have to tell you one," I asked, concerned that uttering a wish aloud to someone would curse it from happening (superstitious me). For a moment, I considered telling her one that I hadn't thought, but again my inner neurotic believed that the utterance of a lie would destroy any possibility of truth and goodness. So, reluctantly, I told her one wish. She then asked to see my palm, but looked at it with the same disinterest I had viewed initially in her gaze, telling me such generalities as I would live a long life and die from old age. After several minutes, it became clear to me that I had given my $10 to a drug addled psychic whose intuitive sense and spiritual channeling needed years of lessons in order to appear even remotely authentic. When she told me that we could go deeper, but it would cost more money, I simply said, "No thanks," and took my leave, feeling as though I had sampled a bit of the grit of the boardwalk.

Amusement could also be found several steps away on the Steel Pier, even though it only held hints of its lively past. While there are no longer human cannonballs or diving horses, there still are acts, such as a high-wire motorcycle trapeze act (which we could view from outside the stage area). Nan and I found a water gun squirting booth that for $3 yielded me, the winner, a brand new stuffed animal to bring home to fluffy Sasha.

Life only got better when we walked from the pier to Ripley's Atlantic City. Wandering amidst all its oddities, I amused myself with the little quiz questions on panels throughout the museum, such as counting the number of triangles. At times, certain exhibits freaked me out, like the tourist lookalikes (pictured in the photo to the right), eerily true to life. After making it through the entire attraction without too many squeals, I found myself faced with walking in the optical illusion of a rolling barrel in order to exit. I took one step forward and had to run back to Nan, clueless about how I would successfully walk, sick with potential dizziness. Having lost all reason, Nan as always calmed me, telling me to simply close my eyes and hold onto the sides and walk. I did, very quickly, hurrying out to the exit and back into the beating heat of the afternoon, knowing that without Nan there, I would have retraced all my steps back to the entrance in order to exit.

During our two days there, we ate extremely well, even if it sometimes meant a bit of taffy as snacks (ubiquitous on the boardwalk). For our first night, we ventured a couple of blocks from the ocean to the famed Monopoly Atlantic Avenue to Dock's Oyster House, a classic seafood house with more than hundred years of history and fresh oysters. Our meal consisted of a dozen oysters, mostly east coast, and delightfully unfamiliar (Barcats, Old Salt, and Cape May Salts), and a delicious entree of fluke, perfectly cooked so that the white flakes simply fell easily onto the plate, melting in freshness in our mouths. The next evening we opted for the Atlantic Grill, one of the restaurants in Caesars, with a good view of the ocean and a fantastic happy hour. Our food selections included various sushi rolls, calamari, crab cakes, and oysters, all $4-6 less than the cost on the dinner menu, along with a refreshing gin cocktail. 

And so our days and nights were filled with much more than the mindless games of the casino floors (which we did contribute to at times), making Atlantic City a delightful escape for my eclectic soul. And even though this time I only had the image of Mr. Peanut to stroll along with me, I left the boardwalk with a nostalgic smile.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Don't Dismiss Ted

Honestly, I had not given the movie Ted any serious thought. I wondered how a film about a talking teddy bear could have any merit, let alone sustain my attention for more than twenty minutes, even if it had cutie Marky Mark Wahlberg in the star role. When a friend recently asked me if I was planning to go (knowing my movie buff habits), describing the film as about a teddy bear who curses lots and is crass, I immediately said, "No. Why would I want to go see something like that?"

Well, today changed all that. With a movie date planned with a pal, I began to roam around metacritic, reading reviews of some of our possibilities (Bel Ami; Your Sister's Sister; Peace, Love, and Understanding) and seeing that all were simply rated mediocre (some a bit better than others). Then, I decided to look up reviews for Ted, and without reading much more than the synopsis of the review, I decided that based upon its score and nature, it was worthy of an early July summer movie viewing (the kind of film that takes little brain power).

I confess, I like my movies crass. Adolescent boy humor of fart jokes and big boobs makes me feel oh so adolescent in a way that I can relate, much more than the girly adolescent. So, the possibility of watching a foul mouthed teddy bear became appealing--he sits plastered to the couch, smoking out of a bong, chilling out with his best friend John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg). Together, they brave thunderstorms, guzzle tons of beer, and essentially act like a bunch of stoned adult teeners enamored with Flash Gordon.

While I love Ted's sassiness and downright disregard for anything proper (what else might you expect from the creator of Family Guy), it is his steadfast love with John that carries me through the film. They're bros, and no matter what happens, they are forever linked, a pledge from childhood. I laughed throughout the film (I dare you to try to view it without laughing), and I even shed some tears in an extremely sentimental spot (watch it to see where). Don't overlook this film, just because you think it's a fucking stupid movie about a teddy bear--it's much more.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Early Season CSA

It's the third week of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) season, and I am reminded just how delightful it is to go to the pickup site, open the bin, and be surprised by the week's vegetables. Throughout the winter and early spring, I find myself aimlessly wandering Sunflower's aisles, trying to decide what is truly seasonal and where does it originate, usually determining that I should just buy what I want to eat. I end up only buying a few vegetables each week, instead relying on them as an accompaniment to a protein; they are not the star of the meal.

But when Wednesday arrives and it's pickup time, I am in veggie heaven, inspired to create and determined to use everything. So, for several weeks it has been rhubarb aplenty. With the unseasonal high 90s/low 100 temperatures of late, I did not want to create a baked delight, so instead decided to make a rhubarb simple syrup with some mint from the garden. In the end, it has a pale pink consistency, almost grapefruit colored, yet a slight sweetness with mouthfuls of rhubarb and mint. I usually add some sparkling water and a fresh lime to help cool the hot weather.

The Spinach has also been consistent each week, and I am reminded, just how sweet a freshly picked leaf falls on my tongue. Most of the time, I opt for simple with so much spinach, either steaming it or sautéing heaps of garlic and spinach in olive oil, sometimes adding fresh lemon, red chili pepper, and/or butter. It's a deliciousness that I can consistently taste.

And this season, for the first time since I subscribed four-five years ago, I am getting plenty of fresh garlic. Also, for the first time early in the season, I am picking up a huge bag of heirloom beans weekly. I prefer fresh beans, and in the spirit of Mark Bitman, like to cook up a pot of beans on the weekend and then have beans handy all week to add to salads, rice, and currently, spinach. These little things make me happy.

And in the end, though, it is the beet that I fall back in love with at the start of the season. Simply roasting it in the oven (despite the high temperatures but worthy of the aid of the air conditioner) and then taking that first bite slightly warm, reminds me of their sweet and delicate nature, almost a dessert-like treat at times. Last weekend, despite hot temperatures, I walked to the local farmer's market just to pick up some of my favorite goat cheese from Mini Moos in Canon City, treating myself to salads with diced beets, goat cheese, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, and avocado (the only non-CSA item besides the goat cheese), knowing that the only thing missing--a fresh tomato--was almost ready to be picked from the patio pot.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Getting Started Again and Again

When the semester ended in May, I had an image of endless time to sit back and read, innumerable hours to reflect, and plenty of space to sit down and work on essay revisions and drafts of new pieces. But when the semester ended, I found myself entwined in some campus issues, still trying to rediscover the psychic space of a carefree summer. For several weeks, I declared that the detritus of the semester still needed time to shed; I needed space to rest and recover. For the past 16 weeks or so, I rode an automatic pilot work machine, not only doing my regular semester duties of teaching and leading faculty (and chasing other people's responsibilities), but also continuing to work on revisions (and what also felt like a lot of drafting at times) of the textbook with Liz and taking two back-to-back eight week personal essay workshops at The Lighthouse Writers. It took me weeks to realize how tired I was, and during those weeks, the space to realize how much I had produced in sixteen weeks and how much the diligence had allowed me to progress in terms of craft. Yet, I kept stressing since once I polished off a collaborative narrative piece on teaching and writing with a fellow writer to submit to a journal, I stopped writing.

But I never truly stop writing; I simply haven't met the lofty expectations I have set for my writing. When I take stock of the past month since school ended, the writing coffers hold several longish blog entries, a draft of a micro essay, a start of a flash fiction story, and scribbled notes for revision of an essay. And while it is not the work I imagined I would accomplish in a month (full drafts of new pieces, solid revisions of some essays I want to send out at some point), I am still writing.

Summer leaves me weeks of unscheduled time often, but in reality that is a fantasy that doesn't usually transpire. I look at my calendar, and it's rare for me to even find a whole day that is blank. For when summer comes, I find myself wanting to see friends I have neglected during the summer when I had to keep a social free calendar in order to accomplish the writing alongside my job. When summer comes, I have opportunities to travel, and it is that travel that often jumpstarts ideas, immersing me in newfound characters and settings, allowing me emotional distance from my perceptions of previous writing so that I can return anew.

Yet, with the space and distance from a routine schedule, I start to panic, wondering if each day I don't write and only think about writing means that I will never start again. And while I know that such a statement is ridiculous, I do think that a day away means the possibility of never writing. It's almost as if I am testing my commitment at times, trying to see if I have truly internalized writing as a being, a force that will kick through my skin screaming for its voice.

But the truth is I have not stopped. I might not have finished pieces yet. I might not have the pile of work I want to send to da coach. I might not have the rhythm and regularity I ordained for these months off. I do, though, have the constant nagging inner voice that says get me out, get me on paper. I do have the pistons firing ideas, stirring up the juices, waking me from sleep. And today, I use my blog as a jumpstart, flexing my fingers in a workout, energized to finally sit and do some of the hard work of writing that has been patiently waiting for me.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Kentucky Food Tales

I am in the wilds of Kentucky obsessing about food. Now, this is not really a stretch for me, since I often obsess about food--wondering hours ahead of a meal about what I am intending to eat, studying menus prior to dining out, and doing everything I can to ensure that I have options for decent dining when traveling. So, prior to taking off to what I had deemed non-culinary Kentucky and West Virginia, I made sure to pack small packages of almonds and whole meal bars, just in case emergency hit and starvation lingered a stomach growl away. I don't honestly believe I will be foodless when traveling, but I draw the line at the ubiquitous fast food palaces dotting highways, refusing to eat fries from McDonalds, even when I pretend to remember them as delicious.

On our inaugural drive from the Louisville airport to our first destination, Morehead, Kentucky, Nan had scouted out a potential find--Erma's Diner in Owingsville. When we detoured off the interstate to scenic, windy Highway 60, alleged home of Erma's, we passed nothing. At one point, when we passed a small white house that seemed very closed, Nan remarked that it looked similar to the photos she had seen posted online. And so, we continued on the road, rather hungry, resigning ourselves to the possibility that dinner might be obtained from the local travel plaza or our stash of meal bars.

But, as we turned south onto 801 toward our cabin accommodations, I shrieked with glee, waving wildly, telling Nan to look in my pointed direction. She believed danger was near, perhaps an animal in the road, but when she turned, she realized I had spotted a real live eating place--Pop's BBQ. Pulled pork and baked beans hours later, I smiled, happily fed my first night in the wilds of Kentucky. When I went to sleep that evening, I did not not know that it would be my last delicious meal near Morehead.

Our cabin contained a small refrigerator and a microwave oven, limiting the possibilities for breakfast. Since we knew that breakfast places were not in the immediate vicinity, we headed to the local market, Dollar General, assured by the host of the cabins that they would have lots of choices for us. When we entered, I immediately went to the refrigerator section, dreaming that greek yogurt might appear on the shelf, even if it contained fruit. Not only was greek yogurt missing, but any type of yogurt or any fresh fruit (not even overripe bananas) was not to be procured. Instead, I had rows of tasty cake options, mystery meat in cans, and sugary cereal. Fortunately, I am an expert at hotel room breakfast cooking, and found a package of instant oatmeal and raisins, resigning myself to a couple of days of microwaved grub.

Fortified with a bland breakfast the next morning, we took off to Flemingsburg, Kentucky, wandering back roads in search of covered bridges and parcels of land owned by Nan's ancestors. As afternoon hit, the oatmeal had become a distant stomach memory, and I began to obsess about lunch. While we wandered a cemetery, the lawn mower man and keeper of cemetery knowledge stopped and asked us if he could be of assistance. After Nan inquired a bit about family history, I asked my most urgent question: "Where can we get something to eat around here?" When he answered McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, I asked, "Is there something locally owned?" He offered us up the Stockyard Restaurant, which he had not eaten at in years, but we had passed it on the road and were intrigued. When do you get a chance to eat where the cows, pigs, chicken, and other potential slaughter are hanging out? Of course I did not think this as I entered the doors, or I certainly would have turned to the whole meal bars.

When we entered the small dining area, we were greeted with the unfamiliar mix of cigarette smoke and diners. We saw the small buffet with its choice of lasagne, beef tips, or fried chicken along with a choice of sides (macaroni and cheese, very cooked green beans, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes) and desserts, and bellied up to the trays. I chose fried chicken, assuming I'd get a heaping pile with my sides, a grease delight waiting. Instead, I got a tiny piece of fried chicken while Nan got a heaping pile of beef tips. Scarred by being dissed, certain I was discriminated against because of my short spiky butchy hair, I sat picking at my miniscule piece of dried chicken, only able to recover slightly from the bruise with bites of a tart lemon meringue pie slice. We both quickly fled the Stockyard Restaurant, swearing that we would never eat in such a place again, even if it offered cultural fodder.

Did I starve? No. I didn't even have to dig into my meal bars. And the only fast food I ate in Kentucky was a pork bbq with slaw sandwich atop a biscuit (and I did get an odd look for ordering it that way rather than on the traditional bun) at Tudor's Biscuit World.

Oh Morehead Kentucky--I like your lakes, your hills, and your uber cool coffee shop Fuzzy Duck. And if I return, I'll take all my meals at Pop's.

Monday, May 21, 2012

kickstarting a summer of writing

At the end of the semester, I usually  take a pause(s) to clear out the psychic energy that has edged my creativity into corners, that has cluttered my mind with webs of politics, with a depletion of energy. While there is truth in that, what usually prevents my start back to unstructured writing is simply the demons that have been sheltered for weeks.

For the fifteen weeks of last semester, I not only taught classes, worked on the textbook, but also enrolled in two back-to-back 8 week writing workshops at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Despite all my work, I produced all the writing assignments, at times finding myself banging out some of the crispest writing I've done recently. Now that I don't have regular deadlines and the pressure to be a good student, I find myself staring at the lists of pieces I want to work on and stopping, distracted by my fear of paralysis.

After all, my desk at home is cluttered with filing needs amassed from the semester, scattered notes, jots of writing, and various other distractions that scream clean me and then promise hours of carefree writing--hah! But, I know the pattern, and know that while I will appreciate a clean desk, the clutter and dirt doesn't stop the writing. It's simply that the demons are back in full force, mocking my attempts to produce.

And I know it's as simple as starting, as setting the time with the computer, with the paper, to dig into revision, to play with ideas, and to not stop, even when the laughter that shouts "you're so silly to think you can do this" keeps winning at our invisible arm wrestles. So I will start small, start with this blog to remind myself to write, to take things in pieces and not allow myself to be daunted by the insurmountable task of finishing. And even when daunted, to push through, because I have to, because when I don't, I am sleepless, I am chased by words, I am nagged by thoughts of not knowing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Whey of the Problem

Once again my food conservator has struck, wondering what to do with a surplus of something meant to be discarded, something needing a new life.

Today, with the semester finally behind me, Nan and I got to playing with my cheese making kit she had given me back in December. We opted for mozzarella cheese since the kit proclaimed thirty minutes needed. Ingredients and instructions were fairly simple--basically mixing milk, rennet tablet (the coagulator), and citric acid (the stretcher) together at specific temperatures, until you pull and stretch this taffy-like substance.

And so, with some stirring, constant measuring of temperature, waiting, and again heating, we produced our very first homemade cheese. And its texture and taste proved neighbor-worthy, offering tastes across the fence.

Leftover whey proved the true challenge. After all the curds transformed into cheese, we were left with almost one gallon of whey. Nan would have simply dumped it down the sink, sending it to its demise. The food conservator, on the other hand, quickly turned to the internet, ferreting out all the possibilities for recycling. Giving it to your animals (pigs, chickens, dogs) seemed like an easy solution; however, Sasha took several sniffs and quickly retreated, wanting nothing to do with leftovers.

The most appealing solution (and also the one that would use up the majority of whey) was adding it to stock. Thus, with wilting celery and aging carrots occupying the vegetable drawer, I quickly added them and an onion to a 3:1 whey to water ratio. After several hours, a gorgeously rich stock (enhanced with some leftover parmesan rind) was ready to transform the frozen roasted squash from November and the bits of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce hanging out in a container in the fridge into a rich spicy soup.

And as for the rest of the whey--tonight's quinoa and brown rice will be cooked in it, adding a bit of flavor and softening to the grains.

Once again, the food conservator triumphs, rescuing the whey from the problem of waste.

Friday, May 11, 2012

End of the Semester: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

After reading Billie's post on the end of the semester, I became inspired to sit down, stop, and think about the past year. And as customary, things fall into Eastwood place easily. Fortunately, The Good always wins, especially when I am away from the semester and can again reconnect to all the good.

The Good

  • My Comp I students are totally getting rhetoric, finally. This is because I am finally getting better at teaching them this, mostly because of the textbook I've been writing with Liz Kleinfeld. In their portfolio final reflections, most students mention that they understand rhetorical appeals, that they will always think about ethos in what they read and see. They also share that even though initially they felt my reading responses seemed unnecessary, that as the semester progressed, they realized that all their rhetorical analyses helped them apply those principles to their writing and composing.
  • My Comp I students show me how wickedly smart they are. They also show me that my multimodal approach helps them get rhetorical concepts on a deeper level than simply analyzing written text. Their visual arguments are original, pointed, and much more convincing than traditional disengaged argumentative essays that I used to require.
  • I changed up assignments in my Comp I class after several semesters of repetition. I privileged more visual approaches, always accompanied by a form of analysis, to help students see that composition is more than text. As the semester neared its end, I worried about whether their writing skills were getting more proficient--had I structured class in a way that their writing improved even while emphasizing other forms of composition. Fortunately, when I read their final portfolios, their reflective essay (a piece I didn't see) showed they indeed had learned essay writing concepts and rhetorical strategies.
  • Sharing my writing and writing processes/struggles helps me feel more connected to my students and the profession. In my poetry writing class, I wrote in class with the students, sharing my in-class exercises. I talked about my struggles, about how I felt after workshopping my piece the night before, about my drafting and revising practices.
  • Two years ago when I became Faculty Senate President, I had one major goal--to help faculty feel more empowered and to have Senate feel like a group of committed individuals. For the most part, that has been accomplished. I've established good lines of communication with the administration, and as a result, helped to foster some solutions for problematic situations and helped to develop some faculty centered initiatives. Faculty trust me to get their voice heard, so I feel deeply honored by that trust. Since it's felt ultimately rewarding, I'm heading into another two years in the position.
  • This year, I finally received a course release for my work directing the GLBT Resource Center on campus. With the release, I staffed hours in there, so I felt more connected to my work studies who do most of the staffing and with the students who drop in and regularly hang out. I also worked with an essentially new group of students to deliver two safe zone trainings this year. The release is one step toward institutionalizing the Resource Center, and I hope that eventually my hope for that will be realized.
  • For the first time ever, a student in my Comp II class created a resume for one of her genre pieces, illustrating the plight of a teenage mom. It was smart not just in its rhetorical message, but also in how the student paid attention to formatting and the resume's sparseness.
  • News of a raise after what seems like a long four years without one.
  • And probably more goods that have slipped into my mind's crevices.
The Bad
  • Having a student disappear toward the middle of the semester, hoping he is safe out in the world. In a small poetry class of eight, when we lost T, it took a long time to establish the community as just seven. One day, T basically had a breakdown, evident at the start of class. I tried to get T help, involved a Dean who tried to involve a counselor, but T needed to go. And so, perhaps one day I will find out what happened to T, but for now, I hope he is safe out in the world. He made an impression in a short number of weeks.
  • My loose approach (no attendance policy) did not work well with my Comp I class this semester. Most were fresh out of high school and without there being huge consequences for missing class, they would come and go. Thus, I had a rotating community, where it became clear when a number of students would miss. At one point, the class of regulars sensed my frustration--they all sat on one side of the room together so if I stood on that side, the class looked full.
  • Even though my own writing helped me connect more with students, at times it occupied so much of my time that I would occasionally neglect a prep for class. Fortunately this didn't happen often, but when it did, I had to punt quickly, with often good experiences, but still I would think--oh lame Amy, really.
The Ugly
  • As has unfortunately been the case for the past two years at my institution, there seems to be a plague of a virus that has eaten away at its innocence. As the year ends and some things are resolved, I am hopeful that the ugly will disappear.
And so writing this year-end helps me feel not only ready for days of summer's nothingness and the time to undertake certain projects (that post forthcoming), but also grateful for my job, for the fact that despite the tire of fifteen weeks, I get to use my intellect and I get to hang out with young minds; I get paid to think, feel, and create. It doesn't get much better than that.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Collaborative writing

I am a fan of collaborative writing, realizing that mixing minds and words can often lead to a work greater than if done alone. For the past five years, I've been working on a textbook with my colleague and friend, Liz Kleinfeld. The work would be nothing close to its rich texture without our shared brains and writing. I had no doubt that the collaboration would be successful and sustainable because we had spent years teaching together and collaborating on ideas, constantly.

Sometimes, though, an opportunity for collaborative writing comes forward. Several months ago, during a final sharing of writing at a workshop on teacher stories, I read a section aloud. After I shared, a guy across the room said his followed mine nicely, so he read his. Sure enough, the themes of our pieces wrapped themselves together. After the workshop ended, he approached me and suggested we try to collaborate on a piece to submit to the Colorado Language Arts Society journal Statement--an issue devoted to teacher stories. And so, I have ventured into the unknown, wondering how a collaborative writing with someone I do not know will fare.

What I do know, though, is that I'm excited by the prospect. I have no doubt it will ultimately go well. There is a freedom in simply trusting that this experience is right and an opportunity to learn more about myself, my writing, and writing in all its facets. I am a shadow of Whitman's "Noiseless Patient Spider," launching my "filament, filament, filament, out of itself."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Loss keeps sneaking up on me, on us, since the whole household, or at least most of us, keep looking around in our own ways, waiting for her to come around the corner. I had Sappho for close to sixteen years, welcoming her in my home when she was around four weeks old--the runt of a litter from my friend's feral cat. I raised her with her brother, Jordan, who died from pancreatitis about three and a half years ago, along with other pets over the years. Sappho always preferred people over cats and dogs, opting to spend her time with me and Nan. Whenever company came over, Sappho would charm her way into somebody's lap, sweetness her ace. She proclaimed the upstairs of the house her territory, often waiting for us to come up in the evening so she could relax on our bed. My lap was her favorite spot, often stretching out and purring, a steady warmth and love constantly felt by both of us.

Over the years, Sappho struggled with various health issues and thus earned the title Warrior Princess. Whatever struggle faced her, she bravely fought it. More than eight years ago, Sappho began to have stomach issues, struggling with food and absorbing nutrients. Her original vet diagnosed her with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and thus began two years of a steroid regime on and off. The steroids would boost her back up, gaining some weight, not vomiting often. Eventually, the steroid regime proved less successful, and we were faced with perhaps having to put her on a lifetime regiment of pills. Around the same time, Nan and I had consulted a cat psychic to deal with cat behavioral issues in the household (yeah Sappho and others did not want to get along). When Nan asked the psychic about Sappho's health issues, she gave us the most logical advice--get a second opinion. That brought us to a new vet who immediately took Sappho off of steroids and treated her through nutrition.

Sappho seesawed in and out of health battles with her stomach, often linking the most troublesome times with a bad tooth. Over a number of years, Sappho had three of her four key teeth removed, and after each extraction, she rebounded, gaining weight, healthy and playful.

About two months ago, Sappho again plunged. Despite constantly desiring to eat, missing the litter box and giving us pee to clean up, she continued to be affectionate, always wishing to be near us, turning her head upside down to show her ultimate cuteness. After these final months of struggle, Sappho's body fully weakened and succumbed to cancer. We put her down before she got so weak that she had no quality of life.

And saying goodbye has been difficult. While we don't miss the cleaning up after her seven-eight times a day, we miss her. Dowan, the naughty boy cat who often picked on her, roams around the house looking for company, spending time following us around and hanging out with us upstairs on our bed in the evening. He constantly needs our attention, more needy now than before.

And we miss her habits and habits that were developed around her. Once Sappho began pissing outside the litter box, we stopped putting a bathmat on the floor while showering. Today, for the first time in months, I put one down and Sasha, as habit, returned to sprawl on it, feeling the warmth of the shower. The first evening without Sappho, we did not put out any cans of wet food for the other two cats, simply because nobody reminded us. Sappho always screamed for food, insistent on letting us know she was hungry. Without her here, the other two are content to simply munch on their bowl of dry food. In the morning, nobody is scratching at the door to be let in, usually the domain of Sappho, wanting us to get up and pay attention to her.

There are so many more things that linger in the hallway, in the corners of our memories, and in her sweetness that we keep hoping is just around the corner.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Eight Weeks of Writing

I just finished an eight week intermediate/advanced personal essay workshop at The Lighthouse Writers, and at the end, I am struck by the impact it's had on my writing. I moved back to the concept of a workshop after working individually with da writing coach for approximately seven months. During my work with da coach, I really concentrated on sharpening my essay's focus, digging deeper through multiple revisions until I started to carve out the center.

The first piece I workshopped illustrated to me how much progress I'd made in terms of focus/theme. With my own digging and the help from my trusty first readers, I honed the focus more quickly than months prior. This doesn't mean that I have perfected it, because the outcome constantly shifts depending on the piece; it does mean that I am conscious about the changes in my writing, feeling like I am conscious of my learning the more I consistently work at the craft--and it most certainly is work a majority of the time.

Weekly writing assignments, while often a tug and scream at the writing prompt given, always pushed me to stick with the writing, persistent rather than acquiescing to the easier route--surrender. This time around, rather than feel like my struggle with writing would never pass, I simply sat with the difficulty, even when it meant writing four or five different false starts before I found energy and a voice. Doing 500 word assignments also helped me to focus sharply in on something and concentrate a bit more on language and style. While I feel like my voice is still in constant development, I feel energized by this, trying out different techniques to help deepen my essay's style.

The ultimate awareness award, though, goes to my changed attitude and presence with my writing. About one year ago, I finished my first workshop, feeling accomplished because I had written steadily for eight weeks. Today, accomplishment is not what leaps initially. It is simply a newfound sense of steadiness, a deep internal smile that I own, and a conscious intention to hold my writing, even when I am challenged by my own stings of disappointment.

And so, I have decided to keep consciously committing, ingraining a practice that has a will to survive and flourish.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Creating Change

Most of the time I feel off to the margins, outside of the story. This happens even without direct actions of hate, without people purposefully marginalizing me. It's not until I am in the company of 2,700+ queers and allies that I realize how other I usually experience the world, how tired I sometimes get explaining things to people. For four days, I did not have to explain to anyone the purpose of a gender neutral bathroom (bathrooms on the meeting floors of the Hilton Hotel had been transformed to gender neutral), why queer is an appropriate term (books, sessions, dialogue proclaimed the term), and the meaning behind such inside references as T. In Baltimore, Maryland, for four days at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference I, along with all the other fabulous attendees, were the story.

Several key experiences helped shape the conference, and I am certain that these experiences will linger for quite awhile.

One of the first people I met when I got to the hotel was Edie Windsor. At that point, I had no idea who she was except for a woman with a room across the hall from me confronted with a similar momentary problem--our keys weren't working and neither of us could get into our respective rooms. We went downstairs together, got new keys, and both successfully returned to our rooms, this time each gaining access. The next day, I met Edie again in the elder hospitality suite (for those 50+), situated right down the hall from both of our rooms. She greeted me with a warm hug, a small kiss on my cheek, and a quick reminiscence of our key stress from the evening before. It wasn't until my second full day at the conference that I learned of Edie's strength, her courage, and her amazing poise as an 80+ LGBT activist engaged in a pivotal court case against DOMA.

Edie wasn't the only activist I learned about during the conference. While I consider myself fairly current when it comes to politics and LGBT news, I often realize that when the LGBT community becomes the story for four days, I have missed lots and need to catch up. Such was the case when I went to a session on the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" repeal. There I sat riveted to Katie Miller's wisdom, a courageous 21-year-old former West Point cadet who came out and has become a huge spokesperson.

Sometimes activism showed up spontaneously. During an early morning session (yup, 8am and I was present and caffeinated) with several members of the Obama administration discussing "the White House, administrative agencies and the LGBT community," several activist youth in the back mic checked the panel. You could see some of the panelists tense a bit, along with several members in the room from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. At one point, outside the door, you could watch a security staff member hover, hoping for calm. It was, though, the articulate Urvashi Vaid who bridged the gap between the alienated youth and the panel, finding the common ground, restoring the calm so the conversation could continue.

For one day, I joined a group of approximately three-hundred to head off to Washington, D.C. for a chance to lobby for LGBT issues. During the morning, we were trained on the various issues (e.g. ENDA, Safe Schools Improvement Act, LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act). Empowered with information, I walked the halls of the Russell Senate office building, pumped up and a bit nervous about visiting with representatives from the offices of Senator Bennet and Udall. In Senator Bennet's office, five of us got to meet the Senator and tell him stories about our experiences, coming out of the margins, hoping our personal tales might linger when he makes decisions regarding his sponsorship of certain legislation related to the LGBT community.

I watched three students who attended the conference with me energized, making future plans, feeling like they mattered and they had a voice to create change.

And so I hold on to these memories, to this power, when I am faced daily with numerous headlines reporting instances of legislating hate and horrific stories about LGBT deaths. While I try to remain optimistic, sometimes I am simply stuck in the margins, unable to find my way back into the main story.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Semester Lift-Off

I admit it. Lately, I have felt severely disconnected from my job. For one-and-a-half years, it seems that my workplace has been plagued with personnel issues that found me on the receiving end. As a result, I have created work schedules that limit my time on campus, that keep me distant from my job. This fall semester, though, despite a personnel issue, I managed to still connect with students; their voices, enthusiasm, and presence helped me realize I have a friggin awesome job.

And that is the attitude that the first week of classes has helped stir to the surface--finally. I have missed feeling this way; I have missed being excited at the prospects of the semester.

One of the changes I negotiated for this year was receiving a course release for the work I do in the GLBT Center, a small closet of a space, but yet a space that I helped establish several years ago. Last year, I spent very little time in the center, did not offer any safe zone trainings to the campus, and basically did nothing except approve work studies' time sheets. I had grown tired of not receiving compensation for what I do, and while that is not usually the great motivator for me, it became one after surviving a horrific year on campus. Last semester, with compensation, I joyfully spent five hours a week helping to staff the center, hanging out with students, developing friendships and listening to their stories. I also, along with six students, developed and offered a well-attended/received safe zone training. As a result of that one, I have requests for two more this semester. This semester, I am happily back in the center for five hours a week, eager for the conversations and smiles. Later this week, I am going with some of those smiles to attend the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change Conference.

Another contributor to my change of attitude is my revived conscious writing practice (long overdue), mostly focused on personal narrative. Privileging my own reading and writing has reenergized me, helping me remember why I even chose this profession. Rather than approach writing classes as a teacher of writing, I approach them as a writer teaching writing. While the distinction might initially seem a bit semantical, I know that in practice, they are two separate kinds of teaching. Sharing my own frustrations and doubts related to my writing, truly identifying with some students' struggles when it comes to sharing their work and receiving feedback, and always thinking about the models and analysis in class as a lens for composing, has definitely made me a better teacher. The intersections of my writing and the teaching of writing have got me thinking about potential academic articles I'd like to pursue researching and writing over the summer.

And finally, for the first time in a couple of years, I actually opened every file in my online research writing class and improved some of the assignments and discussions. My work on the textbook has helped me refine my thinking about how to truly convey research principles. Additionally, it has helped me be more specific in my assignments, actually spelling out for students what I am looking for in terms of their learning. Yup, I made me some ch ch ch changes that should elevate this class from being the neglected step-child of my semester.

And yes, week one is complete. And yes, I will always know how many weeks are remaining in the semester. And yes, I am excited to go to work tomorrow.