Wednesday, June 29, 2011

National Writing Project Day 3: Exploring Modes

Our core exercise in the morning began with our reading through our journal/daybook and highlighting similar topics with one color.  I ended up using three colors and found family, nature, and art to be my recurring themes.

Afterwards we were asked to take one of these ideas, not necessarily a large theme but something smaller within that theme, and turn it into a narrative piece, and informational piece, and a persuasive piece.

The experience affected my tone and my voice as I wrote.  Taking an idea (a deer approaching me) which I anticipated being best suited for narrative proved to be equally satisfying to writing and more complex to explore as both informational and persuasive essays.

What I learned is that there is still narrative within the information and persuasive essay, but each of those essay forms lended themselves to my experience being about something else.  Something bigger than simply a deer approaching me in the Berkshires back in July of 1995.

I was more tempted to look back what I had previously highlighted to search for similarities and connections.  One jumped out at me.  Highlighted in the same orange ink were brief entries about a bird's nest which I had unwittingly destroyed; a starving dog yapping at me in Seville, Spain; a peacock chasing me on the grounds of a castle in England; and an interactive map demonstrating the ongoing devastation and disappearance of bees worldwide.  Other observations in my daybook included regional/personal gardens, plants, and vegetables.

My writing explored both personal and common public experiences when human beings intersect with nature--both intentionally and unintentionally.  We are a part of nature yet we've seemed to do a pretty thorough job of almost extracting ourselves from it and with it--responsibility.

With each new neighborhood carved out of our communities we push wildlife into the crowded recesses of what is left.  Along with the loss of natural habitat, some of the insecticides we spray kills the bees.

And as is often attributed to Albert Einstein, if the bees go, so do we.

My homework is to continue to draft one of these pieces tonight--and, as our group reflected after we wrote, many of us are tempted to research and read up on the topics which have emerged from us.

Granted, we are adults, and no longer adolescents or teenagers.  Our interest and fascination with exploring a thread of thought through several modes generated from process writing may not mirror that of a 14-year-old.  However, our generational differences do not counter the fact this is just too powerful a tool dismiss.

I'm immersed within the process and I'm looking forward to bringing it to my classes in the fall.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

National Writing Project Day 2: Timelines and Freewriting

One of today's writing lessons began by asking us to create a list of every job we ever held.  Then we generated a list of every car we ever owned.  Finally, the last list asked us to remember every place we ever lived.  We were then given fifteen minutes to free write from any point of any of the timelines.  Take one thing and tease something else--what do we want to share, what do we want to explore, what is jumping out at us from our lists?  The following true story is one I love telling to people but I feel like I have not told it in a while, so I wrote it today.  After I came home from the workshop I polished it and published it here.  Enjoy.

Throughout the late 1980s I worked five different jobs during the early months of each summer break from college.  We all did.  The beach was relatively empty until the July 4th weekend, so we all worked as much as we could anywhere we could in order to save up a chestful of money and then we'd quit most of the jobs after the July 4th weekend.  We'd all keep the most lucrative jobs throughout the rest of the summer, as we wanted a bulk of July and August for us.

I fried chicken at Superfresh in the early morning hours, waited tables at an outdoor bar and restaurant called The Wharf, bussed tables at Ed Zaberer's, collected money at carnival games on Morey's Pier at all hours day and night, and worked as a bouncer and then a bartender at The Playpen.  For most of those jobs, I learned to hustle.

I slept little during May and June and barely touched a beer (that was coming in July).  May and June were about squeezing every cent out of every hour that I could.  We made so much money we opened savings accounts at a nearby bank.  In two months of hustling for three consecutive summers I'd saved almost $7,000--now, a nice chunk of that disappeared into beer and shots and taking waitresses on dates throughout the months of July and August, but I always returned to school with several thousand dollars in my pockets.

It wasn't the same for all of my friends except for those that hustled.  You can hustle a pretty penny during summers at the beach--but you have to grind it out, you can't stop.  Burn the candle at both ends as long as you can and people will hand you money--cash.  Wads of it.  Believe me, you'll stop before they do, and if you don't seize the opportunities and grab it, someone else will.

We'd obviously learned very quickly that hustling translated into cash...and the place I hustled the most was the gaudy tourist trap restaurant Ed Zaberer's.

Zaberer's was huge--it was compartmentalized into many smaller dining rooms connected by ramps.  The rooms were flooded with hungry people and ponytailed waitresses.  It was so busy I learned to carry four buspans at once--I'd stack two on each shoulder and power walk to the kitchen, bust through the swinging doors and shove the clattering buspans onto the cleaning line.  The dishwashers ate food from these buspans and swore at me, goodnaturedly I think, in Spanish if I had squashed some buried treasures inside the underneath buspan.

And just as quickly as I'd delivered full pans, more overflowed in other dining rooms--if I hustled I could be the one to grapple them, and I could be the one the waitresses tipped out more money to at the end of the night.    We were all in college and we all knew the game--if we hustled and cleaned their tables and their pans they could hustle more families and in and out and make more money.  If the waitresses made more money then the busboys made more money.  But you needed face time with the waitresses--they needed to see you and know you were the one making their jobs easier and better.

As the dishwashers chomped on the remains crab cakes and sausages, I accelerated through the doors to corral more buspans but stopped hard on my heels as a crowd blocked my passage between two tables.  My impatience grew as I had nowhere to move and couldn't understand why these people (tourists and waitresses) kept me from doing my job.  I didn't look closely--my focus was clearly just on my job and right now I could not do my job.  I couldn't focus on anything else.

If you did not move fast enough in Ed Zaberer's you would be admonished by Ms. Bliss.  She stood 4 foot tall, wagged ten arthritic crooked fingers both for relief and to emphasize a point; she glowered at us through Joe Paterno's spare eye glasses.  Incredibly, her knees pointed East and West and her toes and chin daggered straight at the person in front of her--her toes and chin led Ms. Bliss throughout the many rooms of the dimly lit restaurant.

The fact of the matter is I knocked Ms. Bliss out cold.

Throughout my many shifts, grunting four buspans to the kitchen each time lathered me up with a heavy sweat and a sharp focus on my job.  I didn't see things as much as I felt things in my path like a bat--I'd obviously known all of the paths between tables and across ramps--I knew where to turn and when to pause--I didn't really need to focus on seeing so much as I did on using my strength and balancing four filled pans.  I'd developed strength in my shoulders and legs heaving, sprinting, bending, stretching, and hustling, hustling, and hustling these heavy pans for hour upon hour.  There were no breaks in the dinner crowd.

A ponytailed flicked in the air and the charming smiling waitress simply said, "Dude, you knocked out Ms. Bliss."

Upper management and very important people came out of the woodwork to evaluate Ms. Bliss.  I looked closely between the crouching and the concerned--I confirmed what Miss Adorable shared with me. I knocked out Ms. Bliss.  Her knees still pointed East and West but her toes and chin jutted towards heaven.  On her left temple a knot the size of a golf ball hardened.  As it turns out, I ran over Ms. Bliss, knocking her square in the temple with two stacked buspans and never looked back.  I have to admit, I never felt her--it wasn't like a car running over a squirrel and the driver feeling the subtle thump-thump raising the car.  This must have been more like tractor trailer meets earthworm.

Once all of the king's horses and all the king's men put Ms. Bliss back together again she settled in for the last hours of the night at a corner table alone with a pack of ice and vodka gimlets.  The waitresses didn't ask.  They continued to bring fresh ones of each until the last light was turned off in the place.

I worked the rest of the night just as hard but I did look where I went now and that made me a bit slower at my job.  Ms. Bliss summoned me after I'd cleaned the last station and the doors were locked.

This felt like going to see the Godfather.  An empty room with a film noir appeal, and a still mound of steel magnolias in glasses on a hard wooden chair swallowing vodka gimlets.  She swallowed vodka with the same ease as her own saliva.

She did nothing at first.  I stood in silence on the opposite side of the round table for eight.  Her right hand trembled and slid a white envelope towards me.  She patted it twice and taught me a lesson.

"I should have been more careful.  Don't ever stop working hard--you did nothing wrong."

I asked her if she was ok and she waved me off impatiently with those same crooked fingers.

"You keep at it.  You work hard.  I like that."

And with that she picked up the envelope, a little thicker than usual, and slapped it into my hand with a little vinegar, wished me good night, and emptied her glass again.

Monday, June 27, 2011

National Writing Project Day 1: A change in culture

After a first day jammed with many exercises, examples, immersion, and discussions of reading about writing, and discussions of our own writing I am left with an unaddressed thought: how many of my colleagues across the country believe that they cannot teach writing?  By that I mean they either feel they are unqualified or they feel they are handcuffed by the curriculum.

I was surprised to hear today (a few times) that the teaching of writing is almost absent in many classrooms because a secondary language arts curriculum is largely content-based (literature-based).  Colleagues shared common experiences that what writing instructors Don Murrary (The Essential Don Murrary), Ralph Fletcher (What a Writer Needs), and Donald Graves (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work) suggest isn't feasible in their content-based classrooms.

Namely, the use of the term the writing classroom has startled some...

The struggle I heard today went along the lines of I am trying to extrapolate something I can use--he doesn't speak about MY classroom experience.

Are our classrooms writing classrooms?  If we say that they are, then does that mean we are neglecting the teaching of the novel, grammar, vocabulary...if we cannot view our classrooms as writing classrooms then what kinds of classrooms are they?

A common sentiment among teachers in my experience is the belief that we teach process writing and that we are preparing the students for the next level.  Writing taught as the process approach as defined in these classrooms is often do x, y, and z in that order and hand it in...and be certain to adhere to the rubric which divides four or five categories into four quadrants labeled with a 1, 2, 3, and 4...4 being the best.  We highlight and make comments and check and circle and rubricise so that students pull out their calculators to figure our what a 16 out of 20 is.

The traditional state-nudged rubric does little to encourage the teaching of writing as suggested by Murray, Graves, and Fletcher.  As a matter of fact, the traditional rubric has choked out the writing classroom and teachers who see themselves as working in a writing classroom.

Whereas the mode of process writing offered by Murray assumes that the students have the time and the confident comfort to write-collect-connect-read, write-collect-connect-read, and write-collect-connect-read some more.

Perhaps our classrooms are not writing classrooms anymore than they are not reading classrooms or hematology labs, but I contend that they are and can be and should be writing classrooms irrespective of whether your curriculum is content-based or other.

I've said it before in other circumstances but the one resource which teachers are trusted the least with is time.  And when that happens all I can visualize is a teacher who might as well shove a wadded up rubric into his or her mouth because the art of what we can do is silenced.

Pleased perhaps that a rough draft may be stapled to a final draft, we operate as if we fear the time we do not have and so we adhere to prescriptive rubrics as our safe harbor.  They save time, and they carry the seal of approval of a lot of people who matter.  Better yet, they train our students to give us exactly what we want, and so they strive to write to fulfill the promise of a rubric.  Achieving a 4 puts one is such a better place, doesn't it?

A rubric is no more encouraging of process writing than a health-care plan encourages a diet.  They are both nice things to have, and they can be helpful for very specific functions. 

"Johnny, with a bit more revision and attention, you can earn a 4."

That's not the dialogue I imagine in a writing classroom.  I agree with my colleagues and our abject realizations.  Hopefully, through workshops such as the National Writing Project, others can speak and listen and read about these processes enough to extract the wadded up rubrics from our mouths and speak freely with students about writing--and teach them to speak freely about it...and not just sit and absorb the 3 the 4 the A the B.  Let's actually make the time to talk about the writing, but first let's actually make the time for people to write.

Before reacting, stop for a moment and consider the core of what I am suggesting, and then puzzle with me over why it seems so difficult to achieve.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Interesting YA Writing Contest

Interesting writing contest hosted at where you basically just submit a first page

This contest is only open to YA, Middle Grade, memoir, pop-culture non-fiction, and women’s commercial fiction.

So here's how the contest will work:
  1. Be sure your work fits into one of the following genres: YA, Middle Grade, memoir, pop-culture non-fiction, and women’s commercial fiction.
  2. Sign up on the link below.
  3. On June 25th, post your title, genre, word count and the first 250 words on your blog for critique.
  4. From June 25th through June 26th, hop around to the other contestant's blogs and critique their first 250 words.
  5. On June 27th, come back to my blog and post your final entry on my dedicated contest entry blog post. Be sure to include:
    1. Your email address
    2. Title, genre, wordcount
    3. Your polished first page (250 words) Don't stop in the middle of a sentence.
    4. Where you follow me
    5. Where you spread the word
That's it!

The literary agent judging the contest will read all of the first pages and select one for a full request (which will include at least a partial critique). She will also request partial for the runners up that she selects!

Contest rules:

  1. You must be a follower of my blog and/or Twitter
  2. You must spread the word, via twitter, fb, blog post, whatever.
  3. Your work must be complete.
  4. Your work must fall into one of the following genres: YA, Middle Grade, memoir, pop-culture non-fiction, and women’s commercial fiction.
  5. You do not have to participate in the critique portion of the contest, but why would you miss the opportunity to polish that baby until it shines before Victoria reads it?

And rain washed her away

Winter crept in and the sky was like soaked parchment.  The day--a mad experiment of steady drizzle, sleet, and wind.  Raw.  Wet. 

Clomping home through a heavy slush, most of my friends scattered in different directions when we reached my street.   Murky trails of feet scattered through the soft pearl skin ladled across the sidewalks.  In a weak attempt to save his new shoes, Joey doddered on ahead across slick mounds of old snow.   His legs punctured the piles and soaked him from his bony legs down through his new shoes.  His mother waited at the window with a folded tartan shawl to protect him from the bitterness.

Grey and wet, the day was intrusive to everyone and everything.  Slowing down through a hardening and slick slush, the biting wind gnawed my left ear.  I tucked my ear against my shoulder and kept moving.

Before leaving school, I overstuffed my coat pockets with candy: mallow cups, sugar daddies, sugar babies, bite-sized chocolate bars, and small boxes of gumdrops. I bought some, while others were given to me.  Nevertheless, I knew my mom would never allow the candy.  She already handcuffed me with a never-ending cycle of strict diets which started from when I was young.

I used to climb on the kitchen counters to sneak a cookie out of an intentionally hard-to-reach jar. She'd tell the baby-sitters to watch out for that.

Thinking quickly on my front steps, because I did not hatch a plan ahead of time, I took all of the candy out of my pockets and stuffed them into my knit hat. Tucking the hat inside my jacket, I thought I could quick scoot into the house and right up the steps, make the right into my room, and secretly stash away the treats.

My jacket conspicuously buckled out with all of the illegal candy.

A slow rain returned and heavy drops popped the holes in the winter mess colder and grayer by the minute.

Normally, candy would not be a problem. My mom worked several jobs and I often shuffled home to an empty house.  Today, however, my grandmother was ill. Gravely ill. She slept upstairs; I wasn't allowed to see her or disturb her from her rest. I knew the house would be busy with company. I thought I could slip through everyone.

I settled on putting the knit hat back on my head with the candy inside.

Climbing the outside steps, I glanced several nodding heads in the living room near the window.  Already preoccupied with their cups of tea and biscottis, I could do this.

As the door popped open from my shoulder shove, all of their sussuration halted and heads looked at me, and continued looking at me.  The steady silence was louder than their conversations.  The unusual aspect that family and friends gathered in my house in mid-afternoon of a weekday slowly sunk in as my exchange with my mother played out.

From across the room, my mother smiled in white, "What do you have under your hat?"

"Nothing." I started for the stairs.

She returned her small slice of cake to the table, spoke softly through a loving smile and walked closer, "Show me what you have under your hat."

Quickly, I muttered, "It's nothing. I don't know. I have to go to the bathroom."

And I bounded up the steps.

Mom placed her hand at the railing at the foot of the stairs, "Come down here."

I did.

"Take off your hat."

I scooted around her and made a slow break for the kitchen, "No!"

Other soft chuckles and murmurs padded behind me throughout the house like cats. My mom followed me.  I upended a thick glass bowl of candied almonds. 

I stood on one side of the kitchen table, my mother stood on the other. We squared off and stared at each other.  She smiled, I panicked.  Now sitting in a kitchen chair, she said, "Take off the hat."

I did. My candy cascaded down my shoulders, chest, and belly.  It clattered on the table and some slid off to the floor in a THWAP-THWAP-TACK-TACK-TICK.

We gathered it up.  It went into a drawer.

A few extended family members poked their noses into the kitchen to see what was under my hat.   My mother’s soft laugh continued, "Why were you hiding it?"

I said it, but I couldn’t believe I said it, "Because you think I'm fat."

My grandmother, my mother's mother, passed away gently a few days later.  I never saw her sick.  Mom temporarily moved me down the block to my split-lipped aunt's house for a couple of nights.  Without the candy.

My grandmother's body remained upstairs and mom didn't want me to see her in that way.

For the funeral and service, I remained trapped at my split-lipped aunt's house with a baby-sitter. Too young to see my first dead body, I wandered and paced around the uncomfortable living room, wondering where they were, what was happening, who was there, why was I here, and I repeatedly pressed my face against the bay window to look across and down the street at my darkened house.

The cold and frost dissipated over the past few days.  The roads remained wet.  My mom wrapped me in her arms for a long time before leaving with the others.   Everyone turned.  Everyone in black.

As the sun set, I sat in the bay window.  I ignored the television, my transported toys, my art supplies, and even the stray old man in an overcoat smoking a cigarette alone across the street.   Nothing tasted good when dinner was placed in front of me.  I didn't eat that night; I remained in the window and watched my house.

The sky darkened and the street lamps hummed.  Many houses remained dark, including my own.  I watched it not knowing when funerals end.

I wanted impatiently for the light of my house. I wanted my mom.

I wanted to go home.

As a new rain pattered on the glass, the babysitter slept on the couch.  It rained harder and I felt afraid and cold and wept by myself against the window.  Enough to drain the ocean dry.

Lars Lerin (watercolor)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Laika

LaikaLaika by Nick Abadzis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Any story involving a suffering or mistreated animal just rakes at my gut--I'm a sucker for that type of manipulation. I can't even watch Marley & Me even though I read the book when it first came out. I'm serious when I say I steadfastly refuse to even look at the screen if my girlfriend puts Marley & Me on television. I've always had dogs and have become wired to respond emotionally to them. Few other stories have come anywhere near generating those types of heavy emotions in me.

Books earning 5/5 stars because they evoke an emotional reaction from me is as good a reason as any for high praise. I praise this book, however, not because there is great artistic merit or style. It is a fair book if the story were not true. But it is true, and so the story of the little dog, Laika (a.k.a. Kudryavka), launched into space to die inside Sputnik II ripped me. I knew nothing about the use of dogs (or any animals) during the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America before reading the graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis.

To be fair, a percentage of the book is fictional. Abadzis does well to paint Laika a hero and builds a former life full of wicked men and women and loneliness and isolation. Which sets us up for how Laika dies, in cramped isolation and lonely. Actually, the cause of her grizzly death was stress and overheating. Her body circled the Earth for some time before Sputnik II disintegrated on its return to the atmosphere. I read that there was quite an outcry against the Soviets for this once the truth came out.

The story would work well in a middle school classroom as this is just the type of issue a middle school student likes to debate and wrestle: should we use animals for scientific advancement? Additionally, if we are around middle school students at all we know we hear the term "That's not fair!" repeatedly. Developmentally, the concept of fairness is important to young people. What happens to this little dog throughout its life will spur a lively debate in any middle school classroom.

Abandoned and abused at a young age, Laika, also experiences a savage attack and killing of another dog she grew close with. This book does not shy away from the issue of cruelty. Kids will also need to talk about that specific incident in the book.

The images in the story are not necessarily anything special and I glossed over many. However, because the core of the story is a small dog, the recurring images of her reminds us it is a living being. The images personalize it. The dog has a face, a smile, and eventually, someone who cares for it and loves it: Yelena Dubrovsky.

For as much as this is a story about the life of a dog sacrificed for science, it is also a human story. We see so many different types of treatment of animals in this story. Abadzis strength is balancing the cruelty with the kindness. Yet, it is the attachment between Yelena and Laika which takes center stage because in the end Yelena is forced to betray the dog she loves. This little dog who has had the most unfortunate existence, finally lands into the arms of human she can trust, and does trust.

Yelena's job was to care for and train all of the dogs used for experimentation in the Soviet space program. Eventually, Laika is hastily sent into space on Sputnik II. In order to properly beat the Americans, some corners had to be cut in the process. One such cut corner was there was no re-entry system created for Sputnik II. Laika was sent into space to perish so that the Soviets could learn what it would take for a human to survive during space travel.

A quote at the end of the graphic novel from 1998 by Oleg Grazenko, one of the leading Soviet scientists directly involved with Sputnik II, admits the waste of Laika's life:
Working with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.
There are real images up on the internet of Laika as this is above all a graphic novel which introduces a moment in history. A moment which young people can use for some great conversation about science, ethics, loyalty, betrayal, propaganda, and the relationships humans forge with animals.

View all my reviews

70 sticks in my head

Within the shadows of the only tree on our block lived a guy also named Joe.  I say "also" because there were no less than five Joes living on our street.  Everyone appreciated this particular Joe.  He volunteered his time for all kinds of odd jobs for people; he never charged anyone a dime, and refused money.   His obstinancy ignited fights which briefly smothered any admiration for him.  He preferred to accept a beer or a piece of fruit.  At best these contrived grudges lingered for a day.  None could stay angry with him.

Joe had two older sons and no wife who I ever met. Although, one son sometimes silently came and went from the house, we never saw Joe with his sons.

I said hello to one son.  He squinted at me over his shoulder.

Joe finished jobs with patience and then took his time to sit for an hour with a beer.   He knew the inside and outside of every home.  Laughing and gesturing with his black-stained fingertips, Joe’s good will towards others filled a need of his own.

Few visited him.

Sometimes my friend Joey and I would have catch in front of Joe the plumber's house.  When he came home from work, Joe stood and watched us before disappearing into the dark and empty row house.

My family invited him to some special dinners and holiday celebrations. Joe the plumber scrubbed himself a disguise of fresh clothes and soft hair. Yet, his fingertips would be always blackened. Military tattoos inked his thick forearms.

He had a dinner date one night.  Joe the plumber cooked a turkey in his oven.  It burned.

He grabbed two towels and ran with high and awkward knees; he huffed and puffed the turkey fifty yards down to my split-lipped Aunt's house.   He left a trail of dark smoke from his front door down to her door.

"Connie! I burned the turkey!"

My split-lipped aunt stood up from her folding chair on the front stoop and waved him into the house like a 3rd base coach, holding the screen door open for him. It slammed familiarly behind her. Joe plunked the ruined bird down on the kitchen table at the back of the house.

Six of us gathered and gaped at the still-smoldering turkey.

My split-lipped aunt, my 80-year-old cousin from Italy, Beppa, my mom, and my split-lipped aunt's friend, Mitzi, snapped to work and all at once their bodies churned throughout the tiny kitchen. They grabbed knives and bowls and vegetables and bottles and towels and cutting boards and the water in the sink ran nonstop.  Arms and fingers pointed, gripped, and hugged.  Someone yelled to put on a pot of water.  I watched bright peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes chopped and mutilated--a spilled can of nuts scrambled across the floor, oranges rolled through all of their feet.   With the pride of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Beppa slid a cutting board of fresh pasta into a boiling pot of water.  They boiled water all day just in case of an emergency. You never knew when someone would need ravioli.

Everyone and everything was in the way and was not in the way like the guts of a fine watch.

"Joe, go home and get washed. We will make it a Waldorf salad!"

"I am clean, Connie."

A voice added, "And ravioli!"

The women ignored him. In the silence of cooking, without a word, good-hearted Joe the plumber disappeared through the open door of his house to scrub his fingers and hands better.  Joey and I follwed him and then had a catch.  We kept peering into the open door left wide open.  Traces of smoke lingered like a low fog in his house.

I never learned how the date went.

When he emerged he didn't seem any cleaner.  He wore a stiff white shirt now.  With the sleeves folded with precision, a tattoo made of smudged blue ink curled from beneath the cuff and around his forearm.  I liked it.  It was a hula girl. Covered now, but higher on his right arm a tattoo of an anchor hid beneath most of his work shirt sleeves--I caught a glimpse of it once when he worked on our bathroom sink.  Same smeary blue ink.  The words and the numbers under it were never clear enough to be read.

Joe the plumber was the only guy I knew who was murdered.

Someone broke into his house in the middle of a quiet night and stabbed him repeatedly in his sleep. The number 70 sticks in my head.

Paul Cezanne: Peasant (Le paysan) ca.1891

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Double Mustache

Jimmy invited me to a birthday party. I didn't know the birthday girl, and her house was more than fifteen blocks away, and to this day I don't recall the girl's name, but Jimmy pitched it to me over the phone and I reluctantly agreed. Jimmy and I weren't close; our friendship was only a few months old. All we had in common was little league baseball and street hockey.

It took a few determined phone calls to the birthday girl, but Jimmy was a good salesman. He got his wish. He had someone to walk with to the party.

We walked too far and couldn't find her street which took us an extra twenty minutes of walking.  Everyone we passed couldn't seem to tell us how to find Emily Street.

Before I could knock, I don't know how it came to be that I stood at the door ahead of Jimmy,  Jimmy reached around me and just opened the door of a strange house.   Shoving me forward I stumbled into a dimly lit room full of people who didn't know me. The look emphasized what are you doing here and why did you just open the door without knocking?  That was the look gifted to me.

Birthday Girl bounded up to Jimmy with a quick hug, took his gift under her arm, and then stepped backward to greet me.  She wore a shiny yellow dress.  Jimmy slid by her and disappeared into the small crowd.  I didn't have a gift. I stared at Jimmy's gift.  Her parents and friends of her parents stopped staring silently at me and returned to their huddle in the kitchen. They played cards.

I'd just noticed the music playing as Birthday Girl sighed  a small "Welcome" and set her gift with the others on the floor. 

A dozen kids perched on the edges of chairs. The cramped living room felt bloated with decorations, small plastic plates of cookies, slices of cake, and small cups of soda. From the quick count of the present pile and the number of kids around me, most had brought a gift...and I spotted empty paper plates with remnants of meatball sandwiches and chips.

With the friction of her dress whishing her away, Birthday Girl had left me standing alone for a moment, but now tugged and whished a skinny girl by the wrist towards me.  The girl was introduced as Philomena--she had a slight mustache and very dark curls which reached all the way down her back.  I thought she could have been pretty without the facial hair.

No gift, we were late, and now a bug-eyed, dark-skinned Italian girl stood in front of me.
I kept an eye over her head on the kitchen--the folding chairs between the living room and the dining room clearly divided the house into two halves: the adult half and the kid half. Maybe I'd have a chance at a meatball sandwich if I paid attention.

She asked me if I knew Jimmy.  She had really straight teeth.

Jimmy occasionally tried to include me in on other conversations. Every time I opened my mouth to say something, I realized I didn't know or recognize anyone, and the words disintegrated in my mouth.

The orphan Philomena stood closer to me now.

If I wasn't watching out for a chance at a meatball sandwich then I was inconspicuously scanning faces for one I knew or a conversation to which I could contribute.  I knew none other than Jimmy and could only stare and pretend things so I could avoid talking with Philomena.

Small fingers tugged on my sleeve--she wanted ice cream.

A large commotion arose from the kitchen.  Chairs rasped backward as a steady line of adults moved their card game into the basement.  Seven adults--all helping to carry bottles, cups, plates, and ashtrays. Dismissing it to nothing more than we were making too much noise, I didn't think much about it, but saw it as my opportunity for a meatball.  From across the room I could see the pot on the stove now that the adults left the kitchen.

I followed Philomena for two steps before Jimmy reached up and nabbed my forearm.  He stopped me--we were going to sing "Happy Birthday."  Grateful to be detached from Philomena of Ethiopia, I knelt so that I could sit on the floor between the sofa and Jimmy's folding chair.

At precisely the same moment that my butt touched the floor, the lights in the living room went out. I could just barely see some silhouettes moving.  I assumed it was the dramatic approach of cake and candle.

I relaxed and tried to see as best I could, but couldn't see a thing, and no one lit any matches or seemed in a hurry to.  I sat quietly with my head down in the dark waiting for the traditional song, waiting for something to happen--and it struck me that I didn't know Birthday Girl's name.

I'd have to sing, "Happy Birthday dear Birthday Girl..."

Or, "Happy Birthday dear mumble-mumble..."

"Happy Birthday to you!"

This concerned me.  I'd have to mumble and I'm kind of in the middle of the cramped room.  When the lights came on everyone would see me faking my way through the song.  Even if they just lit candles, everyone would see my face awash in the orange glow and would know I mumbled.

The shrill swish of drapes hastily pulled closed made the room even blacker.  I could hear Birthday Girl's dress rustle nearby followed by a soft muffled giggle.  Jimmy's chair creaked and I got kicked.  Someone wearing really strong perfume placed a light hand on my hand and I jumped and tucked my hands under my armpits.  My back pushed into the sofa.

Heavy laughter rumbled up from the basement beneath us.

Then a sound built through the room which is as vivid in my head today as it was then. It sounded like everyone in the room chewed with overstuffed mouths of marshmallow.

They couldn't get the marshmellows out or swallow.  It is an indescribable sound as it happened at varying rates all around me. At times it softly hovered right behind me, other moments it aggressively crept towards me from across the room--then another soft chewer to the left of me--and a sloppy, wet chewer directly in front...and I could hear Birthday Girl and Jimmy chewing gently together just above my head.

More adult laughter barreled through the floor beneath me.   It rose just behind the closed door to the basement and then it exploded like buffalo thundering into the room as blinding lights suddenly flashed on and off followed by all of the lamps in the house in marked and deliberate succession-- her parents stood at the top of the basement steps taking Polaroid pictures of us while the white lights of the house intensified with each click-click of another lamp.  The Polaroid memories steadily pitched forward onto the floor.  Other adults couldn't climb around their hosts fast enough for a better glimpse and filled the house with waves of deep laughter.  Folding chairs teetered over.

Some were still making out through the bright flashes of the camera.  Mr. and Mrs. Birthday Girl were taking pictures!  He pointed and directed and she aimed and shot.  And no one cared.  And no one moved. And no one warned me about this. And I was sitting on the floor right next to a skinny perfumed mustached girl nervously shoveling chocolate ice cream into her mouth. With the over-sized spoon in her mouth and chocolate lips, which now gave her a double mustache, she placed her trembling hand on mine one last time.

Bony and cold, I pulled mine away and stood; Philomena, incoherent with teeth and lips mottled with chocolate ice cream, tried to stand too.  I helped her.

And surrounded by couples finishing sharing their marshmellows, Philomena and I stood silently.
I made the mistake of looking at her.

Philomena closed her eyes and pressed her double mustache towards me.

The scene remained this way for a century (Philomena suspended in waiting for her kiss) before Jimmy peeled his mouth from Birthday Girl and tugged me out the front door.  He said he couldn't take it anymore--her breath smelled like Doritos.

As I spilled my guts to him (no invitation, no gift, no meatballs, no heads up on the making out, no gift bag for me, and Philomena's double mustache) Jimmy stopped to laugh so hard his face flushed and his lips and eyes wet with joy.   I didn't know if it was just purely funny or if the real feelings of humiliation I felt were funny. He choked on his laughter and coughed.

Halfway home after we stopped reliving the party, he opened up a gift bag with his name on it and handed me a peanut butter cup.  I didn't eat it.  Quite frankly the round circle of chocolate made me think of Double Mustache's pursed lips.

The truth of the matter is, in just a few short years into high school, Philomena lost both mustaches and grew into an exotic beauty who dated guys already out of high school while I ate a lot of meatball sandwiches and the more than occasional Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Still to this day, I can't look at that candy or its orange wrapper and not think of my close encounter with the Double Mustache.

Review: The Man Who Planted Trees

The Man Who Planted TreesThe Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First published over fifteen years ago, The Man Who Planted Trees fell into my hands via the internet only a month ago. I saw the title on another blog listing must-read stories.

To see a human being reveal really exceptional qualities one must be able to observe his activities over many years.

The tale is simple enough and is more of a non-fiction essay or a travel essay than a story. A man recounts his travels through a rather primitive region of the Alps and his encounter with Elzeard Bouffier--a man planting trees.
If these activities are completely unselfish; if the idea motivating them is unique in its magnanimity; if it is quite certain they have never looked for any reward...

The author introduces himself to Bouffier who extends basic hospitality to the traveler. We learn that Bouffier walks the barren countryside of his region and plants trees by the tens of thousands--it is his self-proclaimed life's work. He collects acorns and painstakingly studies them, planting only those without cracks or damage. Bouffier also takes beech saplings and places them in lowland areas where he believes the proper amount of moisture will help them thrive.
and if in addition they have left visible traces on the world--

Author Jean Giono writes that he returned to visit Bouffier at least once a year with the exception of those years when he served his country in war.
then one may say, without fear of error

The essay concludes simply enough--Giono reports that Bouffier died peacefully and with the exception of the author, almost anonymously. After 40 years of patiently transforming a region of the world, tens of thousands of trees thriving under his will brought wildlife, water, and families back to land.
that one is in the presence of an unforgettable character.


While I have provided a basic plot summary, I do not feel I have spoiled any of it. Of utmost importance is reading the afterword by the author's daughter, Aline Giono. This sheds tremendous light on the background for the essay, her father, and Elzeard Bouffier.

What I can say without spoiling any of it, is that the essay was spurred on by a request by Reader's Digest in 1953. They asked Giono to contribute to a regular feature about extraordinary people. So, while first published in 1996 the essay germinated almost 60 years ago.

The essay and the story behind the essay are both worthy of consideration in your middle school or high school classroom. I can see discussions centered around first-hand accounts, primary research sources, travel essays, nonfiction essays, fiction, the challenge of checking sources, in addition to writing which is just so simple and well-crafted. The writing itself serves as a great model for young people either writing fiction or non-fiction.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: The Writer's Workshop--Imitating Your Way to Better Writing

The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better WritingThe Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing by Gregory L. Roper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An appealing aspect of Gregory Roper's The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing is that it is accessible to educators of all levels. On the surface, a teacher of middle grades might balk at the fact that he uses writing by Dickens, Hemingway, Joyce, Cicero, Pope Gregory VII, and Henry IV to illustrate his points.

True, I can't guarantee that my 8th graders would read Pope Gregory VII and comprehend much at all--however, I can report that they understood the passages by Dickens and Hemingway; the little generators inside their skulls hummed to a warm to glow when I explained Roper's point about Civil War soldiers only having grammar school educations...yet they wrote beautiful letters.

How did they do it? How did the classic writers and orators do it? Roper suggests that there is enough evidence to point to one consistent answer: imitation.

At the very least, some of the literary examples in this book are accessible to middle grade readers and the rest are useful to you to help you build a lesson about Roper's core concept--imitation improves our writing and has for centuries.

Roper makes no claim that he is inventing the concept of imitation. The value of his book rests in the fact the he explains each point extremely well--he includes core exercises and extended core exercises in each chapter. His examples and their explanations are thorough--he patientl teaches them to you. He does not write beyond your grasp or "speak" down to you. The book has the feel as if it were written by a teacher who has struggled with teaching writing in the past...and it is.

At the back of the book, Roper's chapter notes are some of the most useful I've discovered. While chapter notes may be often easily ignored, these take you deeper into the core concepts, suggest other ways to present these ideas to students...include modifications to exercises or how you might share pieces with your kids.

I like the fact that Roper really sticks to one very specific point for the entire book, yet he offers a wealth of example, exercise, and teaching points for teachers of all levels to incorporate.

On Friday I introduced his lesson on Hemingway's style to my class of 8th grades. We read the short story A Day's Wait and then discussed it. I allowed Roper's notes to guide me through the lesson--the kids got it. Then they set out to imitate what they perceived Hemingway was trying to do. We reviewed the concepts again today and worked on revision--tomorrow we share and discuss. This is after working through his lesson on Dickens earlier last week.

My 8th graders are catching on--I'm running out of days to workshop my kids on the rest of Roper's exercises.

I enthusiastically suggest that if you are a teacher of writing to check this book out for yourself. I find interesting and full of ideas--I'm actually looking forward to designing a few more lessons over the summer based on the concepts in Roper's book.

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

I Offer You the World

Back in the 1950s my grandfather, John, walked across the street in his work clothes. In his hands under chin was a pot. While spooning pasta and beans directly into his mouth he visited family. That is what they did back then. Our extended family and our neighbors were the same people. It was true then, and it remained so when I was a child.

Infamous black and white photos of my grandfather fell into my hands for the safe keeping and trust of our history: blurry and sleeping with a fried meatball in his mouth; posturing in a wool suit and fedora next to his new 1932 Plymouth; chest thrust out in pride on the Aleutian Islands during World War II; shirtless and at home with my grandmother on a New Jersey beach; and the honeymoon photos at Niagra Falls which feature relaxation on an old porch of an old house surrounded by high and calm country grass.

My grandfather's people gathered together from foreign farms and humble homes. They worked the jobs which wrestled America into the modern age.

Growing up, the men in my family often spoke about my grandfather to me. They walked into our house as he often walked into theirs. They missed him. Ever since I was walking they celebrated my resemblance--I walked like him, and my husky frame matched his. Reminding them of him provided opportunities to share:

"He was good man your Pop-Pop John."

I grew up in the house that my mother was raised in. The house my grandfather paid for with hardened hands. His friends, my Aunt and Uncle Joanne and Joe, lived with my grandfather and his family. Joanne and Joe couldn't yet afford a house after they married. Working and hoping to raise a family, a house was in the future. During his lifetime, my Uncle Joe shared a lot of my grandfather with me--my memories and understanding of him come from many places, but Uncle filled in the color of the man.

"You'll live with us."

The offer to Joe and Joanne from my grandfather included more than the use of a room. A testament to the willingness to transform a house, a family, a friendship, and a future, it eased some of the difficultly of family. For Joanne and Joe that home became their home. A modest row house transformed into a home for two families.

"We fix the upstairs."

Grandpa John, Joe, and our Uncle Carmen labored together on Saturday and Sunday mornings—completely redefining the upstairs. Carmen arrived first on these morning--with coffee for all. Slowly, they shifted walls and sledgehammered doorways into new purpose. They roughed out separate living and sleeping spaces with only their hands, modest tools, and their time.

Years later, my mother and I reinvented it into our home.

"Your Pop-Pop John, he used to say, 'Come on down to my bar.' and we'd all walk down into the unfinished basement...this gray, damp basement...and drink. He'd point to the oil tank and say, 'That is my bar,' then he set his beer on it proudly and offered us his world."

My grandfather hauled a tractor trailer all over the county to put food on the table. He found the one job which allowed him to explore and come home again. After hearing his stories, seeing his pictures, and understanding what it meant to drive a truck across the country, I wanted to be a truck driver too.

"He actually said to us, with beer held high, 'I offer you the world!' We always got a good laugh out of that. We didn't have a pot to piss in between us, but...he found a way to deliver on his promise."

I remember the musty concrete basements of so many homes. Our Beppa's basement hid her trunk that she and her husband emigrated with from Italy. Her gray basement resembled ours. My split-lipped aunt's musty cobwebby basement resembled ours.

"We did not have much. Nope. But your Pop-Pop, he made us feel like kings."

After Uncle Joe would tell me about my grandfather he'd overpower me with a hug and planted a kiss on my face. Every time. His rough scruff scraped my cheeks.

"I miss that man."

Tonight, I set an empty can of beer on my oil tank and toast not only my grandfather, but also my Uncle Joe who passed this week. I'm grateful for what he shared, just as he was grateful for what my grandfather shared.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

NWP -- Introductory Class (What is Voice?)

For four consecutive weeks in late June and July I will be participating in the National Writing Project (Pennsylvania) workshop hosted at West Chester University. We met today for three hours.

One of the central conversations of the day asked "what is voice? Harder to teach than to define...but still no picnic to define...we examined a few pieces of writing which ranged from child's picture book (Twilight Comes Twice, by Ralph Fletcher) to a poem written by a high school student and one by a high school teacher.

Our groups reported out today that the following things seem to be present in the development of voice: repetition, white space, rhythm, personal pronouns, audience, specific details (or lack of), concrete images, and sentence variety. At the very least the groups discussed that the authors seemed aware of some of these things.

It didn't sit right with me. Because we moved onto other things in the class I wasn't ready to leave the conversation. On a second look my opinion has shifted about what we came up with today--I think we inferred but did not directly acknowledge the importance of the author knowing who he/she is.

Before you can have a voice and master penning it, you have to have an awareness of yourself. As teachers of young people of varying ages, we are going to have students of varying readiness to even begin to be aware of themselves and who they are.

That said, voice certainly includes opinion and tone, but I think it is bigger than those two items.

I asked the question in our group today, is it possible for our kids to write in the voice of the opposite sex? A colleague immediately jumped in and thought so since authors do it all the time. I can't say that I agree...we're talking about kids here, not accomplished, professional authors.

Can we ask kids to try, of course. But what my question was moving us towards was the concept of listening. To be self-aware means you have the ability to listen and observe yourself to even know if what you put down on paper is your voice. The same is true if I asked an 8th grade boy to write in the voice of an 8th grade girl--without instructing them to listen, to truly absorb what girls talk about, in what cadence, in what arrangement of words...the result would be what boys think girls are talking about. And at 13 the assignment may go well off the rails of intention.

I do believe voice is difficult to teach at every level for a few fundamental reasons. Of course the social maturity and self-awareness is a primary concern, but I also believe the development of voice has got to include the acknowledgment that you are allowing yourself to distort the cookie cutter rules of grammar, syntax, style, ethics, good taste, school, the individual teacher, and the previous umpteen years of classroom training.

It isn't enough to say give me more detail or use more accurate language; the development of voice is, at best, a work in progress for students.

Younger (less mature) writers may hear "voice" and translate that to their innermost feelings or worse, turn their writing into their diary. To teach young people that there is a distinction between you diary and your voice is a challenge.

We can use tools and mini-lessons which focus on things like repetition, concrete imagery, and the like, but without helping (talking with them about) students develop self-awareness and the ability to distort "the rules" then we are just adding more hard edges to the square of education.

If we want them to develop voice we have to make it clear that it is OK to soften the corners of the square a bit. Erase them a touch...manipulate...use...alter...defy? the cookie cutter rules.

Otherwise, they're just writing cookies.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Blessing

In my youth, my first taste of a cigarette was on a sinner's breath.

Unnoticed by the sisters, Danielle routinely ducked outside, somehow, during our recess period of apples, graham crackers, and small cartons of milk, to indulge her habit. She smelled like stale ash; and I could only imagine her soft tongue tasted like bitter cough syrup. The sisters suspected her, but they never seemed to catch her in the act.

There'd always be a conspicuous apple and milk without a claim.

That one day, however, before Danielle could slink away unnoticed, Sister Mary shoved her granite paws inside one pocket of the heavenly blue Catholic girls’ jumper. Danielle had her leg up on a chair as she applied lotion to her knees during a break. Something red flashed on her hip and then the gravely grin on Sister's face tumbled against and over her jowly cheeks. It took one thrust. In her tight and righteous grip a pack of Marlboro cigarettes suffocated. She squeezed tighter and tighter on the package inside Danielle's pocket, pressing it into a cellophane and cardboard wafer. Danielle's skirt raised to an illegal height, Sister fished the pack out of the jumper and slammed it into the trash can. The rest of us sat up straight. Danielle calmly placed her foot down and fixed her skirt like she'd done a thousand times prior. And would a thousand times again. At least.

"Sinner!" Sister glowered, her voice deeply nasal, "what have you to say?"

Danielle screwed the cap back onto the lotion. As she turned to face Sister, her posture never changed--confident curve, calf, and chest. My eyes loved that posture. They also loved her highly arched eyebrows. They loved her dark hair pulled back into a long shimmering pony tail. They loved her olive forehead. They loved her glow. Danielle was a beauty built for subjects painfully absent from my 8th grade report card.

"Danielle? Speak child."

Transfixed, I bit into my apple.

Danielle warmed the remaining lotion into her hands. Her soft lips parted and she simply said in a frown, "They ain't mine."

The class exhaled. I chewed a large uneven wedge. Bits fell out onto my desk.

Danielle turned on a heel of her saddle shoes and her hips swayed her back to her desk as if a gentle breeze pressed against a the sail of a small boat just moments from full launch. We watched her. Wow, we all watched her. Our heads leaned and stretched; all I could see was her knee in the sudden congestion.

Sister boiled. I chewed.

Furiously, Sister scratched out a detention and barked at Danielle from the front of the room, "To the!" The last word of all of Sister's statements were always elongated and guttural. Sister's feet bounced in unison upon the old linoleum--her holiness slammed the atoms beneath our rubber soles. "Now young lady!"

The orpaned apple tumbled from Sister's desk and onto the floor.

Sister corrected herself in an attempt at levity for our benefit, "Young lady, pffff. I'd give you all two cents if anyone mistook Danielle for a lady."

We sat up straighter.

With obvious pleasure, Danielle slid from her seat. She bent down on one knee, her blue skirt led my eyes on a silent pilgrimage high atop her thigh, and placed plucked the apple from the floor along with the rest her books.

Danielle stopped at my desk, bent down to say something and then didn't. Her breath slipped into my mouth and soiled the chewed apple. It was awful--like soil.

She walked toward the door slowly and bit. Picking up the crinkled detention slip from Sister's desk, she strode out the door; the oxygen in the room seemed to want to go with her--Danielle was our fourteen-year-old budding Cleopatra.

The door closed behind Danielle with a barely audible click. I fantasized her chewing.

Sister blessed herself--out of pre-programming we all followed suit. I'm sure I prayed for something different than Sister.

Yet, the fact remained...I hated cigarettes almost as much as Sister. Now, I wanted to spit out the defiled bit of mashed apple. But, Jesus, I sure liked watching Danielle walk. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Jesus, did I like watching her walk.