The Year of Living Pandemically

During first period on Thursday, March 12, 2020, one of the sophomores in my English II class looked up from his phone and said, “They just closed.”

He was referring to one of our peer schools, an institution with whom our school shares a lot of cues – such as when to close down during a global pandemic.

Over the previous couple of weeks, all of my classes had begun with an anxious conversation with my students about Covid-19. They were the ones anxiously asking questions, and I was the one doing my best to answer them in a reassuring way, debunking myths and providing the best information I had about the virus and what we knew and what we still didn’t. Oddly, I was not, myself, feeling their same sense of worry. Yes, I knew things were serious, and yes, I was fairly well informed of the news (the accurate variety), but also? I have a brother who lives in Hong Kong, and so I’d already Continue reading “The Year of Living Pandemically”

Monday Earworm: U2

I saw U2 live in concert a few years ago at the biggest stadium in Houston. Like, going in there was literally like walking inside of a hollowed-out little planet. It was my first time to see U2 live, and the thing that astounded me the most was how those four guys FILLED the place with sound. Just them, no backups. Pretty amazing.

This is one of my favorite of their songs.

In other news, I’m grading and working on report card comments. A lot. Peace out till all that’s over with.

Monday Earworm: B.o.B. (feat. Bruno Mars)

I love this song, and every once in a while it earworms itself in my head. Now it can do that for you as well.

In other news, sorry not to have posted one last week. We had…um…some weather, and I didn’t have power. Fortunately, all those power-grid shenanigans led to your getting one more chance to sign up for my class on building stories through character, which has been rescheduled for this coming Saturday afternoon! There is still room in the class, but do sign up soon, since registration will close early Friday. You can learn more about the class and sign up for it here.

A Rescheduled Event…

OMG the weather in Texas this week. Ordinarily I would be happy as ever about it because snow is my happy place. Unfortunately, the ironically named Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) messed up bigly here, and this week has been…challenging. We (at my house) are okay, especially now. But OMG. Maybe I’ll share the harrowing tale with you later.

So I have good news and bad news.

Bad news: today’s “How Characters Drive Stories” class I’m teaching through Writespace has been postponed because of this week’s extraordinary weather events and ensuing infrastructure issues.

Good news: It has been rescheduled for next weekend! Saturday, February 27th, in the afternoon this time (1:00-4:00), so all you not-so-early risers will have another chance to take the class now.  😉

Registration should be opening back up soon (CLICK HERE FOR IT), but if you want to sign up and find this link is closed, let me know and I’ll hook you up.  🙂

In Which I Tell You, Giddily, About A Class I’m Teaching, Which You Might Be Interested In…

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching a three-hour fiction writing workshop on Saturday, February 20th through Writespace in Houston. The class will be happening on Zoom, though, so anyone can do it from anywhere with an internet connection! You can expect a generative workshop aimed at developing character as a pathway to building great stories. I hope you’ll consider taking it if you like writing, or tell someone you know who might be interested. This class is open to all levels of experience.

Here’s the course description:

“Have you ever written a story that just didn’t quite connect with its readers? Or have you ever finally found its resonance only once you were already three or four drafts in? One good way to captivate your readers from the outset is to begin with compelling characters. In this generative workshop, we’ll use tools from popular culture, narrative craft, and literary analysis to kickstart (or revamp!) your story with characters that seem so real. Come see why character drives plot, no matter the genre, far more than the other way around. Be sure to bring your preferred writing utensils (journal and pen, laptop, legal pad and box of sharpened pencils, etc.), a description of your favorite character from a book or movie, and an eagerness to look at character from a variety of angles. You can expect instruction, discussion, writing time, and the opportunity to share (if you wish) what you create in this class.”

The cost for this three-hour workshop is $45 for Writespace members and $60 for non-members before February 15th; after that date the price goes up just a bit. Class is capped at 15 students, so register for it sooner rather than later! You can do that by clicking here.

And if you want to see my faculty page at Writespace, which includes an excerpt of my fiction and some real student testimonials, click here.

Please help me spread the word about this course?

Thanks so much, and have a good weekend!

Monday Earworm: Kinkaid Orchestra

Hey there. This week’s earworm is a video of the student orchestra at the high school where I teach doing “Bittersweet Symphony.” On Zoom. They’re pretty great!

In not-entirely-unrelated news, Houston’s Official Christmas Music Station started playing Christmas music this year on NOVEMBER 8TH. I mean, it might have been earlier, but that was the first I heard it, and I don’t think they were doing it the night before, though I could be wrong. I will not be listening to that until the day after Thanksgiving.

BUT this reminds me that my annual 12 Days of Holiday Earworms (or whatever I decide to call it this year) will be coming up in a few weeks, so if you want to send me any suggestions for this year’s list — because I still have a few spots left to fill — drop them in the comments please.

Enjoy!

Monday Earworm: School of Rock Kids (Sing The Mamas and the Papas)

One of my colleagues whose classroom is across the hall from mine plays music at the start of his classes just about every day. Really loudly. And it’s often good music. I started the day with Beck’s “Qué Onda Guero” in my head, but then this song started up across the hall, and now this one has been stuck in my head all day.

But rather than show a clip of the original, I’m using this cover by a School of Rock Camp group, because it is actually, in my opinion, better. (And yes, I know people will argue with me about that, and I even know who will be the first to register a complaint in the comments. And who will want to, but then refrain from doing so just because I’ve pre-emptively called it out.)

Enjoy.  😉

Monday Earworm: (Deleted)

EDIT:  It has recently come to my attention that the song I included here today was by a band whose members included a known perpetrator of sexual assault. I had no idea. The song I played here is the only one by that band that I ever really knew, and I hadn’t paid attention to anything else they’d done. I regret that and hope that my post didn’t cause anyone distress. I will leave up the anecdote but not the reference to the song, which I’ve removed.

Instead, please feel free to post in the comments on whatever music or book you’re enjoying right now to make your own part of the world better and more enjoyable for you. 

 

I’m cleaning out my classroom at school this week. Plans for the fall semester are still in flux, of course, but I know that some stuff needs to come out of there, so. One thing I’m doing is bringing home my classroom library so I can make more room on my shelves. These are primarily books which have been withdrawn from our school library and given away free to a good home. These are books which belong to me personally that I keep around for my students when they are looking for something to read for fun and need some inspiration.

Those who know me well know that I might be slightly obsessed with books. They were my most enduring form of entertainment the whole time I was growing up, and that has never really changed for me. I’ve been reading stories on my own since I was four and writing them since I was eight. And I cannot seem to stop acquiring books.

One of the reasons I have a Little Free Library — aside from the desire to provide free books of quality to anyone walking past my house — is so that I don’t feel I need to hoard books. So I brought home a literal carload of novels and culled through them this afternoon to figure out which ones I wanted to keep and which were going to the Little Free Library, either because I already owned a copy or because the story blurb didn’t interest me overmuch. Four large bags of books are destined for the LFL, and one large bag went up to my bedroom….

…where I already have a TBR stack that is, I kid you not, an entire bookshelf plus three tall stacks on top of my dresser plus two stacks on top of my nightstand plus my Kindle.

I might have a problem.

And what have I chosen to read for fun this week? I’m rereading Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston because it is, hands-down, my favorite alternate timeline I wish to all the gods that have ever been that we were living in right now. It’s also hilarious and sexy and deeply smart and character-driven and just all-around well-written. It makes me genuinely happy to read it.

*le sigh*

In the comments, tell us your favorite book obsession — whether it’s your favorite storyline or your author obsession or your book boy-/girlfriend. Inquiring minds want to know!

 

Working From Home. Still. So Far.

So about three months or so ago I wrote a post about the pandemic and the coming lockdown and what I thought about why people were losing their minds over it. I generally still stand by what I wrote then, particularly about transitions and information overload and the way we as humans tend to respond to disruptions and anxiety. Today I’m writing about pandemic-related business again.

So three months into this thing, how are we doing?

As a nation, not great. The lack of leadership has been astounding, even compared to the track record over the last three years. I can’t even go into it here. Lots of other people have, and I’ll let them, but suffice it to say this is my current social distancing bingo card.

That said, my daily logistical life has been overall pretty reasonably good. Stable, for the most part. I have found that there are some things about working from home which I rather like. (I was teaching synchronously on Zoom to mostly engaged students, so my experience was maybe anomalous.) I missed seeing my colleagues and my students in person, but working from home in our house is not miserable. We are steeped in good fortune in that sense, since all four of us can work or school from home without being on top of each other, and the kids didn’t have to do school in their bedrooms. I never for a moment forget our privilege in that regard.

But I will also say that working from home had a steep learning curve, for a variety of reasons. (And those reasons weren’t necessarily the same for each member of my family.) I found, as a teacher, that grading on my computer took about three times as long as grading on paper. And for all my apparent wisdom about transitions, I did not allow myself enough of a transition time to move from one modality (teaching in person in a classroom) to the other (teaching on Zoom). So things took a lot longer than I expected, and that caused me some real stress. It took me a while to come to an awareness that my mindset had been struggling to shift and adjust. After a couple of weeks, I accepted that I was still in a kind of transition myself and needed to cut myself some slack over it. Only after the awareness and acceptance could I take meaningful action, which was to get my work actually done. (For what it’s worth, I was not alone in this, even as a teacher; most of my colleagues were going through much the same process.)

In my post a few months ago I noted that I wasn’t panicking or having anxiety attacks, and to my general surprise and delight, that has mostly held true over the last few months. (Knock on wood.) As someone who suffers from anxiety generally and who has felt the existential dread of living under the current regime since it was just a gleam in a crazy person’s eye, I am pleased to report that I’ve had only a very few meltdowns over the last three months, and they were fairly brief.

As I have noted before, action dispels anxiety. For me, that means that I do things rather than stare at the walls in despair — or at least for 85% of the time, I do. That’s just how I cope. I had the necessity of cleaning out my home office (my study, my studio, whatever) so it could become my classroom. It took me three days over Spring Break, but I’ve been generally pleased with the results, and once I finish getting art on the walls, I’ll post about my workspace. (If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll note that my cats like to hang out in here. About a month into distance learning I told my principal I didn’t think I could teach without a cat in the room anymore, so we should think about getting me one for my classroom. He laughed, assuming I was joking. Dear reader, I was not. But that will be a conversation for another day, I suspect — probably in August.)

I’ve been on a major decluttering kick for quite a few years now, and being in lockdown gave my family the opportunity to get some of that done. Well, I saw it as an opportunity. My family (especially the kids) saw it as a chance to prevent Mom from going nuts and throwing out all their stuff. Tomato, tomahto. We’re not completely finished yet. However, stuff got cleaned up and cleaned out, and I’m calling that a win.

One significant revelation I have had is that for the first time since I had kids (and y’all, they’re both teenagers now), I had downtime on the weekends. Yes, it was enforced because where was I going to go? But also, it’s kind of wonderful. I do not miss the hectic-pace lifestyle we had before in which I spent most of every Saturday and Sunday running errands, and wow. Dear reader, we do not want to go back to that.

I have not abandoned my social life, although it has significantly changed. I am grateful to have Zoom so this can be possible. I’ve hosted dance parties, art and jewelry making parties, and had many conversations with faraway friends. My writing critique groups meet online now, and participation is substantially more robust and improved now that we can video conference from home. I’ve even attended the occasional happy hour or game night. All to the good.

On the other hand, out here in the state of Texas, which is badly governed during the best of times, things are becoming stressful. The state did not meet its benchmarks for opening up — I’m not sure any of the fifty states did, by the way, though correct me if I’m wrong on that — and now our cases of COVID-19 are rising significantly. We had been in really good shape, nowhere near capacity in our medical facilities here in Houston at the largest medical center in the world, and now? Can’t really say that anymore. We opened up the state too soon, and while some people are handling this in a mature way, knowing that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something, enough people out there have decided the pandemic must be over because they can hang out in restaurants and bars again.

So let me say this again for anyone who hasn’t gotten the message:

Wash your hands. Wear a mask in public. Stay home if you’re sick or if you don’t have to be out. PLEASE.

Here are a few other reminders of things you’ve probably seen in memes and which are also, in fact, true:

Opening up doesn’t mean the pandemic is gone. It just means they have room for you in the ICU.

We stay home now so that when we can safely get together again, everyone will still be there.

Economies recover. Dead people don’t.

Look, I recognize that this may seem very glib for me to say because I haven’t lost my job and can get pretty much all my absolute necessities met, and because I live in a house that’s enough. It doesn’t mean that everything is easy, though: my kids miss their friends terribly, I miss my friends and family a lot, too, and it would be really great not to have to worry about everything so much. But those of us who have the ability and freedom and privilege to take extra precautions for the safety of ourselves and others should do so.

And in this regard, I recognize that this isn’t all about me. Or my situation. Or even my immediate family’s. It’s about the wider community, and our obligation to be responsible for the wider community, recognizing that our actions are not in isolation, especially when we ourselves are not isolated.

Isolation is not fun. Even the introverts in my house are a little tired of it. And I get that.

But still.

I suspect I will be writing more about this, and I promise it won’t always be in my Stern Teacher Voice. Just wait till you find out about the movies and TV we’ve been catching up on!

Peace out.

Poem-A-Day: Dede Fox

A few months ago I was invited to become a member of the Board of Directors for Mutabilis Press, a publisher of poetry, and of course I jumped at the chance! I’ve long been an admirer of their anthologies and have had the pleasure of being published in some of them over the years. This year I’m including some of the Mutabilis Press poets in the Poem-A-Day series for National Poetry Month. Today is the first.

This poem by Dede Fox reminds me of the precarious balance I observe on the daily, as a parent of two teenagers (even saying that wracks my nerves) and as a high school teacher. I want so very much for my children, my own and the ones I teach. I want so much for the world to be an excellent place for them (even if it’s a wreck with, as the poet Maggie Smith suggests, good bones). I want so much for them to find their passions, and for those passions to contribute in beautiful ways to the world. I want so much for them to be unburdened enough to enjoy their youth but responsible enough to recognize it’s okay that youth doesn’t last forever, because good choices make for a much better other side of age.

I want so much.

 

Hide and Seek

She posts photos:
her dreadlocks through stages
in the dying process—
brown to blonde to purple,
lips stained dark blue,
emaciated torso in a black T-shirt,
feet in stiletto platforms

her favorite animals:
red-feathered chickens playing
follow-the-leader across hardscrabble soil,
turtles that she’s saved from 18-wheelers
crossing country highways,
dogs, cats, donkeys, fish, horses,
a bearded dragon with a human name,
all squatting at her dead grandmother’s
house with the girl and a boyfriend,
so young that he hides his age
behind a bushy beard and glasses

She sketches:
faceless teens with the words
“don’t let your light go out,”
or “I hope that one day you see me
for who I am
and not who you want me to be,”
but people who love her
at nineteen know her —
no GED, no job,
no driver’s license,
a frightened child
playing grown-up,
hiding out,
allowing her promise
to dim in the settling dust.

Only she can’t see
her unlimited talent,
wasted until she ignites it,
accepts responsibility
for lighting her own world.

***

Go to this month’s first Poem-A-Day to learn how to participate in a game as part of this year’s series. You can have just a little involvement or go all the way and write a cento. I hope you’ll join in!

***

Dede Fox is the 2017-2022 Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, Texas. For four years she mentored writers as the NEA/DOJ Artist-in-Residence at the Bryan Federal Prison Camp for Women and currently works with Houston’s Writers in the Schools at Texas Children’s Hospital. THE TREASURE IN THE TINY BLUE TIN, her first novel, was listed in 2010 BEST JEWISH BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS.  Dede’s poetry collections include CONFESSIONS OF A JEWISH TEXAN and POSTCARDS HOME. “Chapultepec Park,” winner of the Christina Sergeyevna Award at the Austin International Poetry Festival, served as catalyst for ON WINGS OF SILENCE, her novel-in-verse published in 2019.