Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Learn, Baby, Learn!

I am considering a challenge for myself, in order to "keep the dream alive," as they say.  I don't want my newfound (or should I say, renewed) thirst for knowledge to fade away, and to make sure that doesn't happen, I am going to read.  Really, really read.

I have shelves and shelves of nonfiction books, chiefly on American history, that sit unread, though I have a deep interest in the topics they represent.  Many of them, I picked up as souvenirs from various historic sites and museums I have visited.  Of course, purchasing a book at the museum store, instead of a mgnet or a shot glass, makes me quite the intellectual.  As I said before, few of these books explore events after the American Civil War, but I'm fairly certain that my desire to know more extends beyond the twentieth century (or before the twentieth century, to be correct).

So my challenge will be this: Once my class has officially ended, once I have scored the exams and turned in final grades, I am going to embark upon the adventure of reading one nonfiction book per week.  I may be in for a rude awakening, considering I have a very busy almost-nine-month-old, but I always have at least a couple of hours each evening between her bedtime and mine.  And, upon reading these books, I also intend to write about them, here, to ensure that I am actually learning something.  An ambitious challenge, but at least I won't have to look at those books with guilt, having not read them.  Also an ambitious challenge because I prefer fiction oh, so much more!

I'm not sure what my first selecton will be.  Unfortunately, more pressing on my mind are 25 papers about the Civil Rights movement.  Work first, learning later...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Who Doesn't Love a Good Surprise?

When I agreed to teach United States Civilization: 1877 to the Present, I never dreamed all that it would entail.  I couldn't envision weeks in which I spent upwards of fifty hours, reading, researching, preparing lectures, writing quizzes, grading papers.  I couldn't imagine the months of feeling chained to the couch, textbook to my left, computer on my lap, while I plunked out pages and pages of lecture notes.  I couldn't fathom the idea of actually having to fail students, or at least give them very low Ds (I'm supposed to be the nice one!).  I couldn't predict that even being home all day, every day, with my little girl, I would still feel like I was neglecting her because the Gilded Age or the Gulf War was more pressing at the moment.

It's been an incredibly full nine weeks so far, with the tenth finishing up, and the final exam looming in nine days.  My baby still loves me; I know this by the way she greets me with a wide, two-toothed smile every morning, and by the way she reaches for me, even when other people she loves are holding her.  My hips might be a little wider for the wear, since a great deal of that couch time was formerly spent taking that little girl for walks.  And I might be a little behind on some other things, least of all this blog, let alone photograph organization, housework, and perhaps even a few relationships.

But what I truly did not expect from what has become my greatest adventure since childbirth, is the level of appreciation I have gained for 20th-century American history.  Three months ago, I was a self-proclaimed history snob, believing that nothing interesting happened in the United States after the Civil War.  I figured in teaching this class, the faint glimmers of interest I had in the Great Depression and World War II would sustain me through all the rest of that garbage, but when it came down to it, I just loved studing the 1950s!  And the 1960s.  And the Vietnam War and the 1970s.  Oh, wait, and those Roaring Twenties and World War I.  Where did all of this interesting stuff come from?

I guess it was always there.

And what's more, I want to know more.  I don't know if I will ever teach this class again, and if I do, where it will be, but, unlike when I took this class myself during my undergraduate years, I now have this driving thirst to increase my knowledge of the twentieth century.  I certainly don't own many books on these topics, as my personal library is dominated by colonial and early national history (and my interest in these periods has not decreased).  But just the fact that I want to know more has surprised me, and continues to surprise me, as I finish up this week's lecture on the 1990s...the decade during which most of my students were born.

Aren't surprises the best?  Ask anyone I know...I am a difficult person to surprise.  And this surprise, I suspect, is one that will keep on giving, so long as I hold on to what I've got right now.

(DISCLAIMER: I still have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about the Gilded Age.  Not sure that one can ever be cured...)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Reality and Clarity

Do dreams really mean anything?  Are they signals?  Are they merely your subconscious desires coming to the surface?  Are they omens?  Should they be heeded in any way?

I know in the Bible, dreams meant something.  They were interpreted and turned out to be commands from God about a particular situation, or a warning.  I suppose that could be true today, as well, but how does one tell the difference between types of dreams?  I've had plenty of dreams that weren't omens or warnings or any type of foreshadowing, though I certainly may have wished them to be. 

Sometimes maybe it's not the dream itself, but the feeling it leaves you with, that you just can't shake.  Maybe that's the important part.  When a dream seems not necessarily real, but clear, and you carry it with you throughout the following day, perhaps that's when you should truly pay attention.

Maybe dreams are another kind of writing, an image that forces you to be honest with yourself, and there is no escaping during the dream itself.  And if that feeling lingers, there is no escaping once you're awake, either.  At that point, it seems futile to tell yourself that it was "just a dream."  Because maybe there is no such thing as "just a dream."  Even a nightmare can be some very real fears coming to fruition.  And it makes you see yourself more clearly.  Maybe it even helps you understand.

Whatever dreams are, they're not a waste.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Baby Girl won't stop crying.  The faucet is dripping, plopping into a bowl in the sink, already filled with water, probably filled to soak so that the food won't harden overnight.  I'm too tired to empty the dishwasher tonight, and besides, I ought to be as quiet as possible so that if Baby Girl does decide to fall asleep, I won't disturb her.  The muted tapping of this laptop keyboard is thankfully much quieter than the basic Dell keyboard for my desktop.

Charlotte, the cat, has made herself comfortable on the bottom rack of Baby Girl's elevated, reclined chair.  Her seat, I call it.  Every once in a while, Charlotte shifts, and I can see the seat move from the top, which was mysterious at first, until I realized where the cat was.  And then, when the cat, unlike Baby Girl, tumbles into a deep sleep, she snores just a little bit.  The bottom rack is meant for Baby Girl's toys and blankets, and they're there, but no space is ever too full for a cat to fit.

There's not much worse in this world than the feeling of helplessness, when even holding Baby Girl close to me, rocking, rocking, and singing in hushed tones, makes no difference.  I can't possibly know what's wrong, and for a split second, it makes me feel like a failure.  I know that she's not hungry, and it's late, so she must be tired.  She must at least be half as tired as I am, and I could curl up and sleep to morning from this moment, but instead, I am just waiting for Baby Girl to fall asleep first.  It's a race, and I am trying to let her win, but she is fighting.

I hate sitting here and listening to her cry, but what does it matter when holding her doesn't quiet her?  It's the feeling of helplessness.  Usually just picking her up is enough, but now...  Whenever there's a moment not filled with her cries, a shard of hope glistens with the possibility that perhaps this time she has unwillingly given up the fight, that perhaps the darkness of her room has overwhelmed her, and the frustration of crying has drained her energy.  And as a moment stretches out, longer and longer, the feeling of helplessness lessens a little.  Maybe I did help.  Maybe she does feel safe, after all.  Maybe nothing's really wrong. 

She is asleep.  She won.

And so did I.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

History of the Public

I don't get it.  How can a 450-page book entitled America: A History of the United States (Volume 2: Since 1865) not even mention the Wright Brothers?  How can it spend just four pages discussing the space program, with only one of those pages related to the space program during the Kennedy administration?  How can it not mention Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African-American to achieve world recognition and make a living by writing, and why does it not spend more than one paragraph discussing the Harlem Renaissance? 

Why are we so content to be fed only political and economic history, and yet accept it as the whole of history?

Despite this, I myself powered through, hoping that someday, in some undergraduate or graduate history class, I'd find those gems.  That is, what did politics and economics have to do with people like me, living their everyday lives, in the United States?  I think this is where the true treasures of history lie, and we cannot keep forcing students to learn nothing more than political ideologies, while forgetting about the stuff of real life.  I'm not saying that there isn't a place for political history.  There is.  But I think a more well-rounded approach to the study of history is absolutely necessary.

Because honestly, what the Wright Brothers did at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and at Huffman Prairie in 1905, affects my life much more profoundly than does some obscure political battle during an election year.  Not only that, read a novel by John Steinbeck, and I think you'll get a lot more useful information on what life was like for many people in the 1930s than you would if you read pages 248-279 in the textbook.

We probably need to be more well-rounded in general, anyway.  These days, everything is STEM, STEM, STEM...Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.  That's where we need to focus so that other industrialized countries don't continue to outpace us.  But where will we be left if we can no longer identify those other countries on a map?  If we can't express our feelings about where technology is taking us?  If we can't leave incredible, creative marks to define every era of our culture?  Leave one thing behind, and you open the door for a lot of mess.

History cannot be fully understood without a nod to everything that was happening: political, economic, cultural, right down to the simple, everyday actions of the American citizen.  And humanity cannot be fully understood without taking into account everything that makes us human.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

First Loves Never Die

If I hadn’t finished reading the book two weeks ago and had all that subsequent time to anticipate our discussion this evening, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so disappointed.  Last month, I hadn’t had time in four days even to skim the novel for my first book club meeting, though during the discussion, I desperately wished I had.  So I voraciously devoured this month’s selection, having been proverbially “hooked” after the first few pages.  How could I not be, when it was a death-defying, weather-related incident? 

But our discussion, I thought, left much to be desired.  When I wanted nothing more than to talk about the narrative voice, and the level of emotion conveyed, and the matter-of-factness of the work, it just turned out to be a series of questions like, “Remember when this happened?  What did you think of that?”  Or, “Do you think today’s generation would respond the same way?”  Or, “I thought that one part was so funny,” which isn’t even a question at all, or even a prompt. 

It reminded me of a Bible study I once attended, where the leader would read a passage, or even a single verse, and then lazily ask the participants, “So, what do you guys think about that?”  Nothing deep, nothing probing, no diving board into a multi-sided, thought-provoking exchange.

In any case, tonight, people seemed more interested in talking about a certain relative who was similar to the main character, rather than the characters themselves.  But, startlingly enough, it was during this part of the “discussion” that I made a great discovery.

I think I’m still a writer.

While everyone was talking about Grandma So-and-So, or Grandpa What’s-His-Name, my head starting spinning with novel ideas.  No, not new ideas.  Ideas for novels!  Stories!  Who knows, maybe even screenplays!  I once fancied myself an up-and-coming screenwriter, imagining the day when, dressed in vintage Gucci and with a magnificent, 1920s brooch bedazzling my upswept hair, I would accept my first Oscar for best adapted screenplay.  Yes, my first Oscar.

So these stories suddenly started coming alive to me, never mind the fact that these women had only spent a fleeting moment to mention them.  And the notebook I had brought to take notes of our discussion suddenly became my makeshift “idea book,” and tomorrow, when Shiloh wakes, I will go upstairs and get my real Idea Book, and I will copy these new novel ideas.  And someday, when I need material for my fifteenth novel, there they will be, ready, waiting.

And ready, waiting, right now, is a halfway-decent novel that I began to write about five years ago.  I shall consider it a great accomplishment if I add even one sentence tonight, for it shall be the first sentence of fiction I have composed in years.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lofty Goals and Realistic Expectations

I suppose writing a blog is a little bit of a selfish thing.  It's a few minutes of time set aside, where no housework will get done, no meals will be made, no projects will be completed.  It's also a few minutes where, egotistically, we can hope that someone else out there might find these written words at least nominally interesting.  Why do blogs exist anyway?  Why do people care what anyone else has to say?  Why should I care if they care?

I've hardly written a thing in four years.  I have files and files and files where journal entries, short stories, and attempted novels sit unused, unread.  I know it's a waste.  At one time I considered myself an actual writer.  At one time, I felt so confident that it was my "destiny" (whatever that is), or at least some type of calling, but whatever it was, it was my beckoning career.

Unfortunately, you can't have a career when you don't even dabble.

I was asked the other day, "Why don't you have a blog?"  Well, that was an interesting question.  Why don't I have a blog?  Probably because I don't write anymore, and even if I did...well, that doesn't matter.  I have one now.

Maybe the better question is, "Why don't you write anymore?"  And I could come up with a hundred answers to that very probing inquiry.  I don't know what the real answer is.  But whether I write or not, I have to remember that I can write.  It's doesn't have to be good.  It probably won't be good.  Someone once told me that you have to write a lot of crap in order to get something good.  So maybe the fact that my adoring fans are expecting a riveting blog entry every couple of days or so will force me to write at least something.  And maybe, just maybe, a tiny little gem will rise to the surface, somewhere in the midst of a thousand attempts.

I don't want this to be a chronicle of my life, my daily adventures (or lack thereof).  I suppose I could wish for something philosophical, posing deep, self-altering questions, but I've never been that intelligent.  This is just a place to write.  If you don't like it, I don't care.  I probably won't even like it.

But at least I'll be writing.  So there.