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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Terrified Writer (It's for my own good!)

Inside my blocked brain
Well, now I've done it. Ever since I entered the writing funk I've been in for the past several years, I've been blaming my lack of productivity on an accompanying lack of a contract and a due date. I used to write a couple of chapters and a synopsis, send it off and someone would offer me a contract. But those days don't seem to be returning. After a lot of complaining about how hard it is to write when no one is making me do it, I started this blog as a way to jump start the writing habit I'd neglected.

As it turns out, I love writing my blog. I didn't expect to. I thought writing nonfiction would be tedious, but it isn't. It makes me think things I would never have thought if I hadn't written about them. It makes me look more deeply at life around me. It forces me to be social.

The problem is that I still wasn't writing fiction. In fact, I was so happy with my blog that that's all I was doing, and that's no way to earn a living (unless there is an unprecedented rise in the number of visitors clicking ads on this page). I knew I needed to do something more if I was going to finish one of the dozen or more partial manuscripts I have floating around.

There's one in particular I really wanted to finish, a Pride and Prejudice sequel: Mary and Kitty: A Tale of Two Sisters. It's been rejected as "too literary" by numerous agents and editors (but isn't being literary the point of attempting to write in the style of the august Jane?)  Since I didn't have a contract to jump start me, I decided to "simulate" one. Early last week,  I began to serialize my book, giving myself a weekly deadline .

Readers traditionally love Jane Austen sequels, so it wasn't long before I had followers and a lot of hits. Well, now I have to write the silly thing and I am terrified.
Picture me here
One would think that the notion of emulating Austen, borrowing her characters and settings, as well as her audience would be the scary part, but it isn't. I must be alarmingly arrogant because this doesn't bother me a bit. Regency England was the setting for one of my past lives (more on this another time) so it comes to me naturally.

No, what scares me is having an audience who will necessarily see the rough spots as I compose. The composing process is messy, but readers rarely have to bear with it. Moreover, writing a chapter a week, is one thing, but when you're trying to write like Austen it's like trying to compose with an embroidery needle. There are bound to be a few loose threads and awkward tangles. And what if the readers don't stay with me? How humiliating! How good it will be for me ---and my outsized ego!

So, read Mary and Kitty  if you like Austen. Forward the link to like-minded friends. Send me comments and suggestions, please. I will need them all!


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rain At Last

As you may have noted, we've been having some weather over here on the left coast. Yes, we had some snow out here in Portland. That may not surprise some readers, considering that we're located on about the same parallel as St. John, New Brunswick, but snowfall is about as common here as it is in Atlanta. Our climate actually has a lot in common with London, except it rains more here, an admirable 37 inches per year compared with London's measly 29 inches.

Sometimes, children must borrow snow from the neighbors
We do get the odd freak storm every other year or so, generally between half an inch or two, and up to six once a decade. Communal fear (adult) and joy (kids) reign in equal parts. From the first hint that a cold front may be headed our way, the grocerers are packed with shoppers laying in provisions. My husband, who regular readers will recall is a Brazilian, even bought a kerosene stove, a couple lanterns and a propane space heater one year. Kids listen for school cancellations and gather cookie sheets to sled on.

The most amusing aspect of an impending storm, however, is the television coverage. There is NO OTHER NEWS than the possibility of snow. Every station sends their lowest seniority reporters out to watch the roads and submit reports every 10-15 minutes. These brave souls are posted on highway overpasses, dressed in ski hats, mukluks and their most recent Christmas sweater, and submit such stories as this:

Field Reporter: Hi, this is Scoop Porter out here in the Columbia Gorge where, as you can see, it has not begun to snow yet.
Anchor:  Any reports from the road, Scoop?
Field Reporter:  Well, there aren't many out there tonight. People are playing it safe. We did talk to a truck driver headed toward Pendleton, though. He told us that was indeed carrying traction devices. These traction devices, chains he called them, are specially designed to prevent a vehicle from sliding or getting stuck in snow.
 Anchor:  That's good reporting Scoop. However, we all know there's nothing anyone can do in the event black ice forms on the road surface.
 Field Reporter: Right you are. Black ice is treacherous.
 Anchor: And why do they call it black ice, Scoop? Is it actually black?
 Field Reporter: Heh, heh. No, no. It's called black ice because you can't see it. Ice is transparent, as you probably know, and against the pavement the ice is invisible.
Someone has scraped the black ice to check for visibility
 Anchor: So you say this ice is invisible. So suppose little Tommy or Joey scraped some of it up. Would they be able to see it?
 Field Reporter: Well, I don't know, but I sure wouldn't encourage kids to be outside tonight scraping up black ice or anything else.
 Anchor: Cold out there?
 Field Reporter: My grandpa'd say it was cold as a -- just a minute! I thought I saw a flake of snow. Yes. Yes, that was actually a flake of snow out here. The first winter storm of 2012 has arrived.
 Anchor: (cutting back to the newsroom, now with a backdrop reading Winter's Wrath) There you have it. It is officially snowing out in the Columbia Gorge. The list of school closures will be available after this quick break.
This dialog is only slightly exaggerated, as other Portlanders will affirm. And the reporters are almost correct in calling snowy weather treacherous -- it's actually Pacific Northwest drivers who are dangerous. I recall watching with disbelief  as a driver spun out of control coming down Queen Anne Ave. in Seattle. He was so terrified, he jumped out of his car and almost ran himself over. Of course our lack of expertise is exacerbated by the fact that it doesn't snow often enough for the county to purchase snow removal equipment. It's just as dangerous to be on the sidewalk as it is on the road. And it upsets the livestock, as you can see here.

So, it's raining here again, and I am grateful. The primroses are already peeping out. The grass green stays year round. And rain -- you don't have to shovel it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Story from the Road

Jose and I left for Las Vegas and the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this week, not really looking forward to the trip. I generally don't mind two or three days in Las Vegas. It reminds me how much I love my home. This time, however, we're in LV for a full week. That's way too much glitter and greed.

The CES attracts 167,000 gadget geeks and nano nerds to the Strip; while people-watching is always promising, flights are full and fraught with more than the usual discomfort. Seats in the coach section are about as accommodating as veal-fattening pens, but this time ours didn't recline. The seats in front of us did, of course, landing a bald head very nearly in my lap. I am an advanced soul, however, and refrained from connecting his freckles even though I happened to have a pink felt pen on me.

As ever, the high point of the flight was the arrival of the beverage cart. I opened my tray table into my gut and discovered an enormous ad for Dramamine® emblazoned upon it. Product placement or a warning? Time would tell. I received my six ounce glass of sparkling water and had no sooner taken the first sip when the steward called out to her colleague down the aisle and asked if her ice had "funny stuff" in it too. Hmm. I didn't see anything amusing in my glass, but I set it down anyway.
     "You mean the little black specks?" she responded. Pepper? Fleas in mukluks?  "It's OK. All the ice bags have them."
     "Huh...weird." And they continued serving.
When the steward came by again, I asked her what as in the ice. "Oh," she said dismissively, "it was just some black stuff." I gathered that much, as had the back twenty rows.
     "What do you think it was?" I asked.
     "Probably the lettering from the ice bag," she said. "It rubs off on the ice."
     "There's lettering on the inside of the bag?"
     "Yes," she replied in a tone suggesting everyone knew that and off she trotted.

So, long flight. Unremarkable, aside from the suspicious ice. Old plane. Rattling from Portland to Phoenix. Shuddering from Phoenix to Las Vegas. Still, we arrived in one piece and found our luggage, too. We stepped out into the evening, ready to face more madness. But something else happened instead.

From the taxi line, we could see the Vegas strip glowing in the alien landscape. A nearly full moon floated over the desert like a slice of apricot. As the cab driver tossed our bags in the trunk, I pointed it out.

He looked away. "Where I come from, we don't look at the moon."

It was such an odd response I assumed his heavy accent had interfered with my understanding. Once we were on our way, I asked him how things were going and he began with the usual discourse on how the drivers can't make any money if they're honest. He was honest, so he didn't make money. "Well," I said, "make a wish on the moon and maybe tonight will be better." Turns out I had heard him correctly the first time.
     "The moon is not good for wishing," he said. "It's a dangerous thing."

Taxis, and the conversations within them, sometimes go places you'd never expect. Our driver -- I'll call him Boris --told us he was from Bosnia where he had spent three years in a concentration camp and emerged half dead. But life, he told me, is nothing.
     "And the moon is dangerous?" I asked.
     "It's full of bad humors. It's a dead thing so we never look." Then he turned the conversation. "What is the moon to you?"
     The moon. Artemis. Diana. Selene. Chaste Goddess. "Serenity," I said.
     "For us it is the opposite. Crazy and dangerous."
     Ah. Luna. Lunacy.
     "It's all right if you have found the rose, but I lost my chance. I have not led a good life, so I will not find one. If I am lucky, someone will give one to me." I think of myself as generally informed in matters of mysticism. I know a symbol when I see one. I was lost, though, and it showed."You know what I mean when I say the rose?"
     I thought of the various roses in Eliot's poetry. The 'multifoliate rose', 'disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves', 'the door we never opened into the rose garden'. But Boris didn't mean Eliot. The Virgin Mary, the mystical rose? The rose of the medieval iconography, encompassing both the sacred and the profane? The roses in the Garden of Eden which, according to St. Ambrose, grew thorns after the fall of Adam and Eve? The "healing rose" of alchemy? I had an idea, a "felt-sense", as Eugene Gendlin would say. Perhaps Boris's rose encompassed all these things. 
     "A path of salvation?" I asked.
     "Yes," he said. "It is a path and more."  And then we were at the hotel.


This conversation created a still space that has stayed with me even here in this place of gratuitous noise. It reminds me that beneath this Oz-like city, so full of humbugs, the desert still sends up a primal call that can make us look twice into memory and myth. The glow of the moon may be no more innocent than the neon lights surrounding us here. Even the roses spinning away on the "Beauty and the Beast" slot machine may summon our hearts in ways we can't begin to know. Nothing is what we thought, not even a taxi driver hoping to find his path.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Entering Educational Dead-Time

 Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride. 
It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull... 
                                                                            From "The Leaden-Eyed" by Vachel Lindsay


It's January. Students and staff have returned to school. September is a distant dream, and the long march through February, March and April stretches ahead. It's like the sequence of the python eating an antelope on the Nature Channel: It's hideous, but you can't look away. It's the beginning of the dreaded test preparation season.

Standardized testing—especially that borne of  No Child Left Behind and further supported by Race to the Top and the Common Core standards—is an entrenched ritual of the education industry driven by profit and politics. On January 8, it will have been 12 years since NCLB oozed its way into the system. With it came a lot flawed ideas about education and, as always, any number of idiocies that had nothing to do with classroom reform, including the little-discussed mandate that any school receiving federal funding must allow access to military recruiters.

My chief complaint about NCLB is supposedly its chief asset, one that most politicians praise: the mandate that funding will only be used for programs and teaching methods supported by "scientifically-based research." Did congress have any idea what this would mean in practice?

[Boredom Alert: you may find the following paragraph tedious. Feel free to skip to the next.]
Research in education has traditionally followed the methodology of the social sciences. This sort of research focuses on humans in the course of their lives rather than rats in a lab, and tends to be observational, descriptive and qualitative. This is necessary because we can't control variables outside the lab, and every human in a group represents and behaves according to a great quivering mass of unpredictable, heterogeneous idiosyncrasies. The literature of education, as anyone might guess, speaks to behavioral and cognitive tendencies that appear to occur in certain situations. Such studies are held to a moderately rigorous statistical probability level of  p 0.05—there is a 5% chance that differences between an observed group and the rest of the population is due to chance. Like the rest of the social sciences, education also makes use of meta-analyses, a  statistical method of combining the results of studies even though they may have been designed differently. Scientifically based research, on the other hand, reflects the lab setting and is held to a very rigorous probability level of p 0.01, the same as is used with pharmaceutical testing.

As Stetphen Metcalf puts it in his seminal article, "Reading Between the Lines,"
[NCLB] ...  led to a feeding frenzy. Educational Testing Service, maker of the SAT, has always been nonprofit; but it recently created a for-profit, K-12 subsidiary, ETS K-12 Works, to provide "testing and measurement services to the nation's elementary and secondary schools." To help market it, the company replaced CEO Nancy Cole, an educator with a background in psychometrics, with an executive from the marketing wing of the pharmaceutical industry.
And so it began. Several decades worth of research, teacher practice and educational materials were no longer valid or funded because they did not meet a pharmaceutical measure for predictability.  And out with the bathwater went a lot of curriculum that was no longer emphasized because the results of its study (and testing) couldn't be replicated scientifically. Instead, emphasis was on "minimal competence along a narrow range of skills, with an eye toward satisfying the low end of the labor market." (also Metcalf). Most schools, faced with "exposure" as failures, complied. It wasn't just art and music that suffered this time; free reading time, projects that put learning in real contexts, guest speakers, even class discussions -- cut back or, in some cases, banished. Publishers whose reading series had been adopted included mandatory classroom checks by company representatives to make sure schools were complying with the new curriculum to the letter. I know a teacher who was written up because the script with which he was provided was sitting on his desk rather than being held directly in front of his face. No kidding. And all of this was followed by tests, often designed with the help of the publisher with whom a district had contracted.

 NCLB is now subject to flexibility waivers, but the new legislation still mandates that annual standardized test scores are used as a "significant factor" in the performance evaluations of teachers. Change takes place slowly education. I'm afraid we'll continue to see children and teachers marching leaden-eyed to the drumbeat of institutionalized boredom and mediocrity unless there is a push to re-liberate enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity in schools  -- a push just as compelling and well-funded as the one that stifled education 10 years ago.