I Love New York!

I Love NY

I remember. To celebrate New York today, a few quotes from writers I love who got it just right:

“Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”
Nora Ephron

“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
― John Updike

“I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.”
― Truman Capote

“I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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Rocket Chef 2019!

Join me in Huntsville for this year’s Rocket Chef competition! I am one of 3 judges. We will have so much fun entertaining you and sampling the chefs’ offerings! It’s good to be on that stage, let me tell you–yum! Help us feed the hungry and support Merrimack Hall and all its programs.

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Summer Reading!

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What books are hiding in your summer stack-to-read or download? II’ve got a hodgepodge. Love this quote by Anne Bogel from I’d Rather Be Reading because it rings true to me:
“Because I’m a writer, certified book nerd, and all-around bookish enthusiast, people ask me this question all the time. . . .You’re looking for a book that reminds you why you read in the first place. One written well and that will feel like it’s written for you–one that will make think about things in a new way, or feels things you didn’t expect a book to make you feel, or see things in a new light. A book you don’t want to put down, whose characters you don’t want to tell good-bye. A book you will close feeling satisfied and grateful, thinking, Now, that was a good one.”
 
That’s the book writers like me want to write for all our readers. Just. One. Time.

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Writing Matters

Writing Matters

As a writing teacher, sometimes I think I deserve combat pay. I’d ask for it if I didn’t know my request would be tacked to a bulletin board somewhere in the Berte Humanities Building as entertainment for the faculty. Nobody throws money at the college English department, I assure you. There is nothing more daunting than stacks of essays lurking in my office, waiting to be marked. These days, of course, those papers are mostly email attachments cluttering my in-box, but you know what I mean.

Grading essays is nothing like grading math or science exams. There are no answer keys. Grading essays involves more than red-ink bleeding on a page. Often, the comments I write are far longer and more detailed than the sentence containing the error. I read every word in my students’ essays, sometimes multiple times. I often spend more time reading and responding to my students’ essays than they spent writing them in the first place. This makes me want to take to my bed with an ice pack on my forehead.

I can only grade two essays at a go. After that, I need a break. I often walk the halls of the college seeking human contact, switch out the laundry from the washer to the dryer if I’m at home, or read a rewarding chapter of a just-for-fun book. It’s important to stay fresh when grading, to give the last paper I mark the same grace I gave the first one I read. I don’t want to begin as a benevolent Glinda-the-good-witch grader and finish up like the Red Queen from Alice In Wonderland, shouting “Off with his or her head!” at the smallest grammatical sin.

Students often complain that writing grades are subjective. That isn’t true. Sure, professors are human. We enjoy reading some essays more than others. Just last semester, one of my students suggested, as a final thought in her conclusion, that since so many people die on the donor list waiting for organs, we should just take them from prisoners on death row. At first, I thought she was making a stab at Jonathan Swift-style satire, and I got a little excited about that, but, alas, she was serious, and she doubled-down in our conference.

I occasionally demonstrate my grading theory to students by giving them a stack of papers, which include essays I’ve graded in previous years with an A, B, C, D, and F (the grades and names have been deleted, of course). I ask them to read the essays and assign them a fair grade. They don’t have to mark errors or justify the grades in any way.

Usually, the entire class is in agreement about the results, and students are pleased when I show them that my grades align with theirs. They may not be able to articulate why one essay is better than another, but they know instinctively which is good, better, and best when they read them.

I teach that lesson in an attempt to ward off any future complaints that I “just don’t like the paper” or that students received a poor grade because I “don’t agree with the opinion.” I argue that I don’t “give” grades at all. In almost every way, students determine their own grades. Success in my class is entirely up to them. For many students, this is a novel idea.

Grading is intense work. After reading a batch of papers, my brain feels like Jell-O—a big glob of shivering, non-substantive goo just taking up space on a hospital tray. I usually feel a headache begin about halfway through a long grading session; it builds right behind my eyeballs and radiates into my hairline like a brain freeze from sucking down a milkshake too quickly.

I can’t tell you how depressing it is to find errors in student papers that I’ve gone over and over in class. There are only three explanations for that, and I don’t like any of them. 1. The student didn’t get it. 2. I didn’t teach it well. Or 3. The student doesn’t care enough to get it right.  All three of those options depress me.

Grading is often unrewarding. I see mistakes I’ve painstakingly addressed in a previous draft, a careless disregard for revision, and such poor word choice that the meaning of the syntax is obscured entirely. That’s fairly standard fare. It makes me want to throw things at my office door and grab random students walking by me on the quad and demand some answers.

There is no excuse for bad writing. Clear, concise, meaningful communication is what elevates us as a species. Every job in the world requires writing. Doctors, artists, bank tellers, and stay-at-home parents all have to write, and writers change the world, raise social awareness, and spread ideas to remote areas on the globe. Even writers like me who aren’t writing about war, famine, and politics provide a valuable service. We offer readers hours and hours of distraction from an often ugly world. To me, writing is a noble job. Its ugly cousin, grading, is the scullery maid. To make a living, writers like me do both.

Occasionally, I read an essay that is absolutely wonderful. It’s completely original in thought, context, or articulation, and it makes me laugh out loud with delight. When that happens, I am so proud of my student that I can’t wait to dish out compliments. Sometimes I stop what I’m doing and send a text or email. A perfect sentence is hard for professional writers to spit out, so it’s especially impressive when beginning writers do it well. I feel the urge to throw out candy like I’m riding with the krewe on a Mardi Gras float.

Mostly, however, I slog through hastily written, unexamined arguments that fail to live up to the student’s potential. I think that work is beneath me. As a teacher, my job is to inspire more than the mundane from my students.

When I succeed, I can honestly say I’ve made a difference in my student’s ability to communicate for the rest of his or her life. What could be more important than that? When they fail, either because of their inability to do the work or their unwillingness to put forth the effort, I feel depressed, frustrated, and weary to my bones.

I’m always searching for new ways to teach. Language, like life, is always evolving—for better or worse. Teachers like me have to be quick on our feet, adaptable, open to new ideas, and excited to be in the classroom with our students. I still feel that surge of adrenalin when I walk in a classroom, and I begin every class by saying: “I’m so glad to see you!” The day I can’t say that will be the day I quit teaching.

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Farewell, Miss Nelle Harper Lee

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Here’s the courthouse tonight in Monroeville, Alabama, thanks to a friend in town. If you look carefully, you will see the set for the Mockingbird play below. Alabama will miss you, Miss Nelle Harper Lee.

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The Patriot

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When did it become unfashionable to be openly patriotic? Did I miss a memo? After WWII, Americans were showered with flowers and kisses as they helped liberate countries and concentration camps throughout Europe. To this day, America is the first place the world turns to when disaster strikes or despots rage out of control.

American taxpayers feed more starving people worldwide than anyone else in the world. That’s a fact. We do that. American citizens. With our hard-earned money. Yet, we are often vilified. I wonder what would happen—and I’m not suggesting this is a good idea–if we stopped aiding the helpless, defending the weak, freeing the oppressed, or protecting our citizens and others around the world. Would those who receive our aid continue to bite the hand that feeds them? I honestly don’t know.

I am proud to be an American. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. I shouldn’t feel defensive when I make such a statement, as if I am identifying myself so that the rest of the world can hang a target around my neck, but I do. My son plans to study abroad next year, and my husband and I have repeatedly warned him to blend in with locals. We don’t think it’s safe for him to stand out as an American. We fear for his safety. Isn’t that sad?

I occasionally feel like I have to justify my patriotism to others. I haven’t always felt like this, but I do now. When I fly the stars-and-stripes from my porch (a normal-sized flag for a private residence; I’m not stringing up a flag more suitable for the Super Bowl, I assure you), I am sometimes asked by joggers or walkers going by on the sidewalk in front of my house why I’m doing so, as if the custom is somehow dated, passé, or quaint. I feel the need to cite a socially acceptable reason for flying our flag—the 4th of July, Memorial Day, or some other “official” holiday—as if it’s unseemly to be openly patriotic on an ordinary day.

This questioning reminds me of the folks on television who say, “I support the troops!” followed almost immediately by a criticism of the commander the troops follow, our government in general, the country as a whole, large segments of our population, or our way-of-life in this part of the world. These statements are thinly veiled insults, like the follow-up to, “Bless her heart” or “no offense, but . . . ” which, as everyone knows, is code for “I’m about to offend you.”

I’m unabashedly proud to live in this country. My hope for everyone else in the world is that they, too, can live in peace and safety in their own parts of the world like I do in mine. That’s what we all want, regardless of place of birth, religious affiliation, history, government, or any other variable, isn’t it?

The success our country and people have achieved isn’t some sort of cosmic accident, happy circumstance, or lucky break, you know. It’s self-determination that was hard-won initially, later overcame the loss of over 600,000 of its own citizens in our Civil War, and eventually resulted in a country that has ended up on the side of right more times than not.

Sure, our country is still a work in progress. It has flaws, like our record with regard to civil rights for Native Americans, African Americans, and gay Americans. There is no question about that, but it’s still the best place for an average person to live on the planet. I’d infinitely rather be poor here than poor almost anywhere else. When did we become reluctant to brag about that? We don’t build fences to keep our citizens here, and there’s always a long line to get in.

The circumstances of one’s birth do not define one’s destiny in this place. Ironically, this is one of the few places in the world where you can legally protest, sue, and generally talk bad about the government and all its minions. You can even re-write our laws, elect new leaders, and continue to scream and rant without fear of death, torture, or being tossed on the nearest plane to nowhere.

Americans occasionally learn the value of that privilege the hard way—by attempting to do the same thing while visiting or working in foreign countries. Not every country can handle criticism. It doesn’t take long to figure out that nowhere else is like America. It’s the greatest nation-state experiment in modern history.

We often take our liberties for granted, I think, the same way we know we will have water when we turn on the tap and electricity when we reach for the light switch. I am reminded of this reality, our “normal,” when I see news coverage showing citizens in far-flung places clamoring to be heard, to have their votes counted, to participate in their own government, and to secure the same basic rights for themselves that we enjoy.

It amazes me in the twenty-first century that there are still many countries in the world where women are not allowed to drive, where a son is worth more to a family than a daughter, and where citizens do not have the freedom to worship (or not worship) as they choose.

The rights we take for granted are still battleground issues around the world. I can’t imagine living in a society where a woman’s rape could bring dishonor to her family or where children are conscripted into war. What is considered civilized or barbarous is a matter of where one is born, what one believes, and who is in charge. That’s not okay with me. Might does not make right, or at least it shouldn’t.

I wonder if I would have the courage of the patriots throughout history, people in every country and every culture who risk everything to make their dreams the new reality. I am grateful to those from my own country who have gone before me to secure the rights and privileges I enjoy and for those who work to ensure their survival to this day.

When I see our flag, my heart never fails to swell with emotion. I get a lump in my throat, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds. I can easily imagine the desperate faces of individuals from all over the world who searched desperately for a glimpse of our flag to know they were safe, or home again, or about to begin a new life.

 

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Cat People

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I’m sinking to a new low with this essay. I’m writing about cats. Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Scrunch up your nose in condescension. I deserve it. Scratch another item off my “you’ll-never-catch-me-doing-that” list. Every time I think I’ve hit writing rock bottom, I discover another layer of sinking sand. It’s embarrassing. Sometimes, I even roll my eyes at myself.

Cat people are a breed unto themselves. I’m not one of those people. Banish that thought from your mind. I don’t have coffee mugs with my cat’s picture on them. I’ve never emailed photos of my pet to my friends, and I don’t routinely post cute Facebook pictures of cats online. The very idea makes me cringe.

First of all, my cat is not that cute. We’ve had three cats in our home over the years. One lived nineteen years; another lived seventeen. Cats are a long-term commitment—not like a macaw or parrot where you have to worry about someone taking care of it after you’re pushing daisies–but still a huge chunk of change, time-wise.

Our current cat has deigned to live with us for the past seven years. It’s obvious that he thinks he’s doing us a favor. My daughter found him under a house in the country when she was visiting relatives with her grandmother. She begged to bring him home. I refused repeatedly. She begged some more. “Where is the cat right now?” I asked over the phone. “In my lap,” she responded. That’s when I knew we were getting a new cat.

This cat comes from humble roots. He hadn’t even made it to a humane shelter or pound when my daughter found him. His mama wasn’t a pampered pet. His dad was probably his brother, cousin, or uncle. You know what I mean. Genetically speaking, he’s a little bit special. He has an extra toe on each of his front paws, which makes him look like he’s wearing oversized mittens. It’s oddly appealing. He’s territorial, possessive of his humans, and not above taking a bite out of someone who dares to stop stroking him when he’s decided it’s time for the plebeians he lives with to adore him.

What I admire about him is how faithful he is to his routine. He sticks to a strict daily schedule. First thing in the morning, after being picked up and cuddled, he begs for milk and breakfast. Then it’s off to lick himself clean and take a nap under the dining table. After that, it’s playtime with available humans, maybe a little cat television (sitting on top of a chest under the window to track squirrels and birds like the big-game hunter he thinks he is), followed by another nap on the bed and litter box time. At night, he drapes himself across whoever gets in bed first like a dead weight and refuses to move again until morning. Woe unto anyone who interrupts the routine.

I’m a woman who appreciates routine and predictability. As a mom, I never take an ordinary day for granted. If nobody goes to the emergency room, knocks off a car bumper, or calls me from the principal’s office, I call that a good day. We’ve been known to celebrate a day like that with ice cream.

I’m amazed and humbled that a completely different species of animal clearly wants to be around me. Sure, I’m his source for food, water, and a clean litter box, but it’s obviously more than that. This animal seeks me out for attention. He has an emotional connection to me. It’s clear. He seems himself as part of our family. That’s so surprising to me. I recently attended a lecture by my favorite primatologist, Frans de Waal, about just this sort of thing. He’s done some fascinating studies about social interaction in different species. If you are unaware of his work, go on YouTube and watch a few of his experiments. You can probably predict the results yourself. They are so close to human reactions. It will make you think animals in a new way. My cat would be an interesting study, but he’d never cooperate—not for all the catnip in the world.

In fact, he has quite a high opinion of his own importance. I can tell. He’s a little snotty and believes himself far superior to any other animal he encounters. He refuses to engage with babies or small children in any way. They are clearly beneath him. He knows they aren’t trustworthy, and he turns away and stalks out of the room with a disdainful tail wag when we have the nerve to bring small visitors into his territory.

To show his displeasure with any of us humans, it is not unheard of for him to poop in the shoe of a particularly offensive overnight guest, and he once used my sister’s clean laundry pile as a substitute for his litter box. Subtlety is not one of his talents. He is crotchety, difficult, messy, and often a pain in the behind, much like some of our human family members. It’s a good thing we think of him as family, too. Not every one would put up with him. He has a bad attitude most of the time.

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