Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them

It seems like everyone comes out with a list of must-read books each summer.  And since I’m clearly too late to jump on that bandwagon, I thought I’d do it up a little differently and give you some suggestions of books which are very, very good but which made me rather unhappy while I was reading them.  These are books which were well written or technically astute enough to break through my misery, distaste, or other negative reaction to convince me they were still awfully good books.

And a warning: this post isn’t just a series of book reviews.  I’ve often said that one Continue reading “Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them”

Meet My Seven-Year-Old Daughter, the Orange-Belt Fairy Princess Badass

So when school let out a few weeks ago, my daughter’s Tae Kwon Do class had their promotion tests, but she missed it because she was home from school that day, sick with a fever. I could go into the details of how we had to go repeatedly back and forth to find a time when she could make up her test, but honestly, they’re not very interesting. Suffice it to say, it took a while, and she ended up having to crash a summer camp session at another school to do her test at the beginning of their class, or else just not be able to move past her white belt. And although she tried out Tae Kwon Do for a semester and liked it well enough, she’s thinks (at this moment, at least) that she’s ready to go back to ballet when school starts up again in the fall. We didn’t want her to have gone through a whole semester of martial arts and not get her belt promotion (i.e., closure), so we made the effort and got ready for the test today.

Now, when I say “got ready,” this primarily consisted of my reminding her every day this week to practice her moves so she could pass her test. We were going to have five minutes at the start of the summer camp class for her to accomplish it, and then leave. Win win for everyone, assuming she would pass.

Unfortunately, explaining the logistics of it to her made her a wee bit nervous. “Practicing” meant she would perform a single kick of some indeterminate sort, and then get distracted by wrackspurts or something and wander off to pick gurdyroots. In other words, no actual practice was happening. Well, fine, I thought, she’s seven years old and needs to understand why practicing something you want to do well at is important, and after all the stakes here aren’t particularly high and it’s a good lesson to learn on blah blah blah. So I didn’t push.

Well, we get to the camp today and get her changed into her gi, which is white and made of cotton. My daughter is growing so quickly, and the white cotton gi had to be washed in hot water with bleach every week this semester because just looking at it funny would make it filthy, and — you do the math. The pants are a couple of inches too short. And we hadn’t put her hair up this morning before she went to her camp (which is for Creative Writing, by the way, nothing physically athletic*), because she likes to wear it down. I offer to put it up for her before her test, but she isn’t interested.

So see if you can get a mental image: my petite, snaggle-toothed daughter (she is seven, after all, which is going into the prime of her tooth-losing years), in her slightly too-short gi and white belt, turquoise and purple glasses atop her nose (the ones with the colorful flowers etched along the arms), her long brown hair in piece-y straight tufts, barefoot with bright pink sparkly toenails…

…walks into a very large, unfamiliar room, greets her coach, then goes to sit down on the floor along the edge of the wall all by herself while the kids from the camp mob into the room for their class.  They are all bigger and older and blonde and tan, wearing shorts and t-shirts from their various camps with their rainbow of brightly colored belts that indicate they have been doing this a lot longer than she has.

My daughter stands out.

She looks at them. They look at her. They all loudly ask their coach who she is, then run to sit on the floor against the wall. From her perspective, they appear to be charging toward her en masse. She looks at me, no longer smiling or even a little excited. The terror in her face is masked only by her long hair falling into it, but I can see that anxiety, because I am still that frightened little girl sometimes in my nightmares, the ones where I have to play the piano in front of a huge audience (like The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson years) and haven’t practiced in, oh, about three decades and all I can manage to eke out is much-too-fast version of Bach’s “Minuet in G Major.” You know that dream? Surely you know that dream.

My daughter is sitting on the end of the row. The little boy next to her, scrubbed clean and buzz-cut, looking like he’s been on a beach the last couple of weeks, just stares at her. She stares back at him for a moment and then folds her arms and legs around herself and pokes her gaze out to me. I nod encouragingly.

The kid asks the coach, “Does she know ninja drills?”

Ninja drills? What?? I think, Uh-oh, she doesn’t know what that is, this is going to make her even more nervous —

“Yes,” the coach answers, “she knows ninja drills.”

Oh? That’s interesting. I wonder what those are…

Class begins, and my daughter dutifully stands and bows to her coach, just like everyone else. All of them, my daughter included, head for the punching bag stands and start their drills. All these other kids are tearing it up with their side chops and roundhouse kicks and neck freezes or whatever other Vulcan death moves they’re doing. They’re shouting hi-ya! like berserkers.

My daughter is pushing at the bag, gently, you know, so as not to hurt it.

Her coach comes over and she tells him she’s nervous. He pats her shoulder reassuringly and reminds her of each move she needs to execute. While the others are warming up, she’s going to have her test. It takes her a couple of tries to get back into the swing of things, I suppose, but then she’s beating the snot out of that punching bag, shouting hi-ya! like the best of them! She chops, she slashes, she kicks, she punches, she elbows, she turns around and beats the thing up behind her back. She has gone, in five minutes, from trembling mermaid and unicorn aficionado to a freakin’ Power Puff Girl Rage Monster. Her coach smiles proudly, but in a relaxed way, you know, like he expected nothing else.

I’m grinning so wide I think I just might cry.

She finishes all the rest of the drills really well, and then the main event arrives. Everyone goes back to sitting along the edge of the wall, and this time my daughter doesn’t look so scared. The other kids are still eying her a little skeptically, but she just pushes her hair out of her eyes, lifts her chin up, and gives me a happy thumbs-up.

The coach brings her back up to the middle of the room. Everyone else is silent. It is time for her to Break The Board. When the other kids see the board set up, a couple begin stage-whispering about whether she can do it or not. She appears to ignore them. The coach asks whether she’s ready, and she nods her head, beaming.

She composes herself quickly, centering, taking a deep breath. Then she lifts her bare foot and brings it crashing down on that board. Hi-ya! It makes a crack as it splits in half and then clatters to the floor below. She stares at the thing in shock, the other kids forgotten. She picks up the pieces of the board and runs over to me, shouting, “I broke the board! I broke the board! Oh my gosh I can’t believe I broke the board!!”

I don’t know who’s beaming more, me, the coach, or her. He calls her back over and presents her with her orange belt, and she skips happily toward me, exclaiming that she’s so proud of herself.

Of course I’m proud of her, too, and I tell her that. We exit the room — her: skipping, hair swinging back and forth down her back — fragments of board and orange belt in hand.

Time to go to lunch with my Fairy Princess Badass.

***

*  I’d like to point out also that my daughter chose to do Creative Writing camp on her own. I didn’t make her do it. And she’s loving every minute! I am so proud.

Academic Calendar Conditioning (and a Reminder)

So I’ve been on the schedule of a typical academic calendar for thirty-five years now, nonstop.  My husband assures me that this consistency is the reason for the reinforcement of my periodic stress.  In other words, I’m conditioned to be overworked and therefore stressed out beyond reason from about the end of April through Memorial Day.

I cannot argue with his logic.  Especially not right now, when I’m in the middle of the busiest two weeks of the school year.  I would argue, but frankly, I don’t have time.  There’s a stack of papers nine inches tall waiting to be graded, and I haven’t even given my final exam yet.

There are other times during the year when I am similarly busy and stressed out.  However, between Thanksgiving and December finals I’m too happy about the holiday season to worry about it much.  Then, I’m blissfully able to remind myself that being behind at school is always a finite problem:  the semester always ends, and by hook or by crook, report cards go out, and then I’m done.  But right now, the summer break, when I can devote myself more fully to my writing, is so close that all I can think of is how burnt out I feel every time I sit down to work.  The glorious weather and the wall of windows in my classroom that look out onto a lovely courtyard do not help.  (My friend Amber, who used to teach at UC Santa Barbara, could see the Pacific Ocean from her office window.  That would be worse, I think, but only for my work ethic.)

I used to have insomnia the beginning of August every year, from the time I began teaching until the time my daughter was born.  (Then I didn’t have the insomnia because I was just so damn tired all the time I couldn’t possibly have trouble falling asleep.  Not at any time, not in any place.)  A lot of my colleagues experience this also, the inability to sleep well (or, in some cases, at all), for about two weeks before the school year begins.  I suppose we should all count ourselves lucky that we care so much about teaching that we worry whether we will do it well enough.  I will say that my colleagues continually inspire me with their energy, talent, and devotion to their students’ success.  As teaching careers go, I’m at what Bull Durham would call “the show.”  And I’m grateful for that.

But this means that for a while a few times a year, the other stuff I do suffers a bit.  For example, my blog.  Let’s just call this post a long-winded apology for not a lot of substantive sharing lately.  It’s not that interesting and important things haven’t been happening.  They have.  I’ve even had a few episodes of mildly worthwhile introspection about them.  But since Easter, it’s been a maelstrom around here.  Yes, work has been busy.  Yes, my daughter turned seven.  Yes, my writing has been doing interesting stuff.  But also, people have died.

Some of all that I may blog about this summer; I don’t know.  I am fairly certain, however, that I will write much more substantial things for you, dear readers, more often than I have the last several weeks.  I appreciate that you’ve stuck with me thus far.

I’ll be done with this school year by the end of May.  I’ll still have school work to do over the summer, of course — the idea that teachers don’t have to work during the break is a damaging myth worthy of Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” — but my time will be more my own and less frenetic.  Or at least that’s the plan.

Until then, go on and vote in my poll from last week.  You know, the one about The Silliest Thing You’ve Ever Heard.  Tell everyone you know to vote also.  Do it before tomorrow, when voting will close.  I can’t wait to find out who the winner is, especially since at the moment there is a three-way tie for first place.

And as for all the rest, thanks for hanging in there with me.  All the best.

Remembering the Challenger

On January 28, 1986, I was in sixth grade at the St. Francis de Sales parish school in Houston.  We were changing classes between religion and social studies.  It was a Tuesday, so we were on a short-day schedule and had five classes before lunch instead of four.  Social studies was fifth.

All the classrooms had TVs in them, which we used occasionally for important events, like the attempted assassination of President Reagan, like the Astros actually making it to the World Series.  Like the day a faulty O-ring, as we would later be told, disastered the space shuttle across an indigo sky.

All the teachers went to watch the news reports in the library together and left the kids alone in the classrooms with the TVs on.  I watched the replays of the explosion a few times and then, in my typical anxiety response, sat down and started copying the notes for class off the board while everyone else jumped around excitedly, perhaps in fear or awe.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the shape of the cloud, the Y-split, the bulbous contrails of grief and despair, nor of the face of Christa McAuliffe’s husband as he watched the shuttle unfold itself into a brief fire, then a billowing slingshot of destruction, then finally a silent, dripping trail of sadness and disbelief highlit against the too-dark blue of the lower stratosphere.

I recently came across this article, posted about a year ago, which clarified some of the nation’s myths about the Challenger.  In theory, I like knowing that the way we remember things is not always accurate but can be remedied.  However, in this case, some of the details might just be worse than the myths in which we enshrouded ourselves.  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/#.TyOHEZgqMfE

The day the shuttle broke apart, we were sent home from school earlier than usual.  The sky above Houston was turquoise, perfect, unbroken by clouds or contrails or debris.  I went out to the swingset in my backyard, where I’d spent most of my free time since I’d turned five, and thought about President Reagan’s address to the nation, how he’d called the astronauts heroes, how he’d likened them to stars in the firmament.  The mid-afternoon sun was piercing, the air a little cold.  I swung up higher, higher, higher until my eyes closed from the bright searing light, until my eyelids closed upon a red semi-darkness, until I couldn’t reach any higher without slackening the chains holding my swing to the set.

On what I determined would be my final climb, I took a deep breath and leaped into the air.  I don’t remember my fall.  I don’t remember my body’s arc across the yard.  I remember only the brightness, the sky that touched all the way to the ground, the suspension of everything that had ever mattered.  The brief, brief flight of a bird I never was.

Mama Spider’s Sacrifice

This essay has been removed because an updated version of it appears in THE MILK OF FEMALE KINDNESS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF HONEST MOTHERHOOD, along with the writings and artwork of others on the theme of motherhood. 

 

Milk of Female Kindness front cover

 

 

Click here to purchase the anthology from Amazon, or contact me directly at forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com for a signed copy.

Hey, Look! A Poem.

So in the spring of 2010, I began having some serious anxiety about my poetry.  Here I was, with a degree in poetry from the University of Houston, two books of poems under my belt, and a job teaching Creative Writing and English at a tiny high school which had developed enough of a reputation for Creative Writing that at least a couple dozen kids a year applied there because they wanted to be writers.

That’s all great, I thought, but a part of me was slowly turning to dust inside because I hadn’t written what I thought was a decent poem in several years.

To be fair, I was embroiled in writing a novel and had made some forays into memoir.  And I had always considered myself a fiction writer more than anything else, even from the time I was a child.  (I think the first time I read one of my short stories in front of an audience was during fourth grade, and yeah, I knew then that Story was It.)  But though I’d begun my education at UH as a fiction writer, about halfway through I felt stymied and switched to poetry, and then I wrote nothing but poems for about three years.

What did I learn from that?  Simply, how language works.  How to navigate the relationships between words.  So after writing only poetry for a while (other, of course, than the literary analysis essays — about other people’s poetry — required for some of my classes), when I came back to fiction, the result stunned me.  My stories were a lot better.

But back to 2010.  I hadn’t been writing poems.  I had barely been scraping together enough time to draft more than a chapter or two per semester on my novel, thanks to my job teaching high school.  I was coming slowly out of what some might have called a mid-life crisis but which my artist friends assured me was really an artistic crisis.  My identity, which had for most of my life been at least partially wrapped up in my ability to be creative, was suffering due to a lack of time for anything creative.  After having two kids and continuing to teach high school full-time, I had quit my hobbies (dancing, painting, jewelry making), and I was treating my writing (and please forgive me for this) like a hobby.

So Aaron encouraged me to sign up for a poetry workshop at Inprint over the summer (when I do not teach).  I took it.  It was transformational.  (And here I must give a shout out to the most excellent Paul Otremba, who was leading the workshop.)  I wrote a lot of poems that summer, and many of them received a good welcome, but beyond that, I was actually satisfied with my work.  I felt so relieved, every other aspect of my writing career began to flourish in the wake.

* * *

When I began teaching, lo these many eons ago, one of my classes challenged me to write a sestina with six words they chose on the spot at random.  They gave me a week to do it, in what I imagine they must have thought was a fun table-turning moment.  I laughed.  I’m not a trained monkey.  Why should I perform?

“Come on,” they said.  “If this form is so much fun, just do it.”

I sighed.  “Okay, this does sound interesting.  What are the words?”

They came up with them quickly, enthusiastically.  Flower, grace, cold, water, coward, chump.

“You’re on,” I grinned.  “I won’t need a week.”

* * *

So why am I telling you this story now?  I have learned, in the past month, that my poems are making their way into the world again.  Of those poems I wrote last summer, several are under consideration for publication right now, and one has been selected for print in two different anthologies.  I’m also going to be a Juried Poet at Houston Poetry Fest again this year.  I’m jazzed.

So I wanted to share a poem with you.  Since I can’t put any of those newer poems here on my blog while they’re under consideration or about to go to print, I thought I’d share that poem my students challenged me to write way back in the day.  (It has been published, in the e-magazine PHUI and in my book Gypsies, but I own the copyright.)  It’s also sort of an important poem for me because I think when I wrote it I crystallized, internally, the generally stoic nature toward most of the world which I hoped to adopt in my life.

If anyone is interested in the mechanics of a sestina or how to write one, please post a comment.  (And apologies:  one of the lines in this poem is really long, and the margins of the blog template won’t allow it to fit all on one line, and I can’t figure out how to tab it over, so it looks like two lines, but it’s not.)

Enjoy!

For the Cold Lovers
(or, Survival of the Fittest)

I must have been a real chump
to be excited by that rare treat, the flower
you gave me.  Maybe because I had been a coward
then, I thrilled to see the graceful
petals even after they’d fallen – gracefully – into the water
glass on the table in the cold

corner of the room.  (I thought the cold
would preserve (my chump-
euphoria and) the life (in the watery
grave) of the tiny flower.
I was wrong.  It died a pathetic – yet graceful –
death, leaning slowly toward its demise like a coward.)

That plant was a coward,
and so had I been, unafraid of the cold
(the wrong thing to trust) and worried, like a graceful
music box dancer, by the independence which might protect me.  We’re a bunch of chumps –
me, the satin-slippered chick, that slowly dying flower –
and we ought to be put out to sea without food or drinking water

in the hopes that the salt-water
creatures will overturn our craft of cowards.
Then I will try to hold, to comfort the choking girl as she weeps for the flower
(that has already found a grave in the cold
sea) and thrashes about (like the chump
she is proving herself to be) in that graceful

way she has, until I say,  “To hell with this grace
and daintiness, you’ll drown in these waters
if you don’t stop acting like a chump
waiting to be rescued and grow some strength!  The cowards
can’t swim to shore, and the cold
will overtake you if you aren’t wise.  The flower

is already dead.”  She’ll weep for the flower
and the death and the woe until her pathetic, graceful
thrashing convinces me not to care anymore, and I leave her to the cold,
unforgiving, undrinkable ocean water,
letting her gently (tired from the thrashing) weep, a quieting coward
sinking into the deep, the grave of the chumps.

And I, no longer a chump or a coward,
will swim back through those waters, strong of arm and a new grace,
wary now of the cold and unimpressed by flowers.

Too Much (This Post Will Be Short)

I want to follow up last weekend’s post about anxiety with this weekend’s antidote:  getting stuff done.

There are times when it feels as if my life, in a particular moment, is spiraling out of control.  I have piles of laundry waiting to be folded, the dishwasher needs unloading, I really should sweep the floor, those piles of things to be sorted or filed or catalogued in the office aren’t going to take care of themselves.  I have papers waiting to be graded, a novel that needs to be revised, a blog post to write, other people’s blogs to research and follow, email inboxes that need to be purged, the bed to be made, my workout to be done, my seasonal wardrobe to rotate, damaged or dead plants to rip from the garden, the new Hallowe’en shop to explore.  Playdates to arrange, decorations to bring down from the attic, a decision on which word processing program I’m going to buy now that my computer’s operating system has been upgraded, my children’s homework to look over, groceries to shop for, toys to be sorted and packed up for Gramma and Grampa’s house, donations to itemize and box.  Episodes of Arrested Development to catch up on, books to read (some of them written by my friends, which ought to make them a higher priority), manuscripts to critique.

You might have noticed — as I did while writing that list — a lack of prioritization.  I think this might be one of my problems.

So instead of whining about how little I can ever get done in a day, I’m going to make this week’s post awfully brief and hopefully do better next time, after I knock some of that nonsense from the second paragraph off my to-do list.

Cheers!