Camping Without Kiddos, A Solstice Reflection

We ran away to the mountains again this weekend. We have a few spots we like—a favorite beach campground, an inland canyon campground, and a lovely mountain campground—close enough to skip town for a weekend without too much hassle. This weekend the beach was full, so off to the mountains we went.

It was also the first campout we went on without kids or friends in the last eighteen years or so. Our kids are both off on a two-week school trip to Europe, and we were left to think about that empty nest that’s coming sooner now, rather than later.  Our eldest is starting college in the fall. But we live in LA. He’s not moving out; he can’t afford it. But it will be different nonetheless, and it will bring a series of shifts.
So we are getting a taste of what our future holds.
I’m delighted to report we still enjoy each other’s company. (We did take the dogs, too.) But it was quiet. There was less to pack, less to cook, less to clean. Also fewer helpers, fewer games, and zero ghost stories. We did ok.
We took a lovely hike in the morning with the goals of tiring out the dogs, looking for deer, and reaching cell signal. It was a little pathetic, but we were concerned about the kids’ activities that day, and wanted to receive a text reporting that no one was injured on the bike tour of Munich or too damaged by the concentration camp museum at Dachau. I feel like we were justified, but we really did go hiking with the intent of looking for cell service. Twice.
The kids were fine. They’ll have lots to talk about when they get home, of course, but for now, they’re safe and sound and enjoying adventuring.
On the way back down the mountain I took some pictures. There are always the requisite oak pictures; I love sprawling oak trees. And then there was this one with the busy community of trees.

The middle of the frame is filled with mature, dark grey-green trees.  These are the grown ups. They are thirty foot tall Live Oaks, some with what could be nests or clumps of mistletoe in the branches. These trees are providing for others. The foreground is filled with bright, spring-green, new growth. These are the kids—fresh, green, shooting up, vying for sunshine and sucking it up like sponges until they seem to glow with it. And then there are the old ones. There are a couple of dry, leafless trunks still standing, a stump and a log on the ground. The old trees are nearly as tall as the middle-aged ones, still offering support, but also adding a different quality and texture to the photo and the biome.

It is so with animals too, of course, and with people. On this solstice weekend, when we were thinking about the changing seasons, it was a lovely reminder to think about the cycles of our lives, not just the year. We were grateful to be together, still happy, and to have the opportunity to give our kids this boost toward independence and introduction to the larger world, so they can see too, how different and how similar we all are.
When the kids get home, we’ll listen to their stories and share ours—thankfully the worst thing that happened to us was the crows ate all the dog food; we had to feed them sausages, the poor dears. They’ll tell us about what it was like to ride a gondola in Venice and walk the grounds at Dachau, and we’ll do that thing people do so well—weave a history of community and a web of stories, build a scaffold to support the next phase of our lives.

Postmodernism is Medieval, and How My Students Rock

I have often observed that Postmodern literature is very medieval. But this is the first year I have had trouble separating my pride in training up some medieval lit lovers and coaching the next generation of postmodern writers.

Let me back up. Postmodern literature (literature written after World War II—technically the literary movement that follows Modernism) is characterized by a sense of upending the rules of literature. In novels it can mean disregarding or breaking away from the Grand Narrative tradition—telling a story from a different perspective, or out of order, or with a narrator who is self-reflexive to the point of discussing how the book is progressing with the reader. Julian Barnes’s History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters tells the story of the great flood from the perspective of a woodworm. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler breaks up a self-reflexive narrative arc (where the Reader is a character) with ten other narratives– aborted “books” the Reader is trying to read.
Essentially, writing fiction becomes play.
How is Postmodernism medieval then?
Many of the tricks Postmodern authors use–playing with order of events, perspective, and amplifying the treatment of relatively small subjects—are all outlined as tricks to help one write in the blindingly contemporary (c. 1200-1215) Poetria Nova, The New Poetry of Geoffrey of Vinsauf. And Geoffrey says he got his best stuff from the Roman rhetorician, Cicero.
Geoffrey advocates taking a small subject like the love affair of one of the lesser known Trojan princes and telling that story as its own narrative. Something that got maybe four lines in The Iliad turns in to the Old French Romance of Troy, then Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, then William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. This is how medieval authors came up with new material.
It’s also how Postmodernists do the same thing.
It’s also how a significant number of my senior literature students made me particularly proud this quarter.
I taught an Introduction to Folklore class this spring. It had a pretty sweeping scope, from the “depth” text of the medieval Welsh Mabinogion, on which we spent nearly three weeks, to the “breadth” of an anthology of folktales from The Arabian Nights to the 20thcentury. Along the way I have students write an analytical paper, so they can figure out how these tales and conventions work well enough to explain it to others, and then they can choose to write more analyses or to write their own “folk tale,” since they know all about how it works.
What I got in several cases far exceeded my expectations. I got stories that made use not only of the folk motifs we studied in this class, but the literature and conventions some of them studied in other classes with me earlier in their careers. Some reused characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Old Norse myths. Some borrowed scenes from the Odyssey  and Volsunga Saga. One told a tale (including Ovidian characters and fairy tale motifs) using tarot cards, a trope used by Calvino in his Castle of Crossed Destinies. One wrote a fairy tale for her second paper and then an analysis of her own tale for her final paper.  Without my prompting, students took my assignment and ran with it in all manner of cool directions.
I am overjoyed and so very impressed. I am grateful. I am giddy. I am never going to stop giving students creative options. This kind of work means they’re not just learning the stories—they are—but they are also learning techniques, internalizing values, making the literature of the past their own. Nothing gives me more hope for a bright future than students who create boldly, applying what they learn to their own world, and ultimately imagining new worlds.
The kids are going to be ok, everyone. I promise.
(The image is the promotion image from the 2005 Terry Gilliam film The Brothers Grimm, which is also a Postmodern pastiche of multiple fairy tale sources, and this class’s last text.)
Living · Teaching

Once More to Graduation

This weekend ended my sixteenth year at my current position. That’s a lot of graduations, really, but I never get tired of it.

I never get tired of seeing people reach their goals, sometimes after many years, and so all the more richly appreciated. I never get tired of families shouting the names of their young folks (and some not as young) as they cross the stage. I never get tired of hearing the stories of graduates as they thank their families and loved ones for helping them get there.
Ok, I’m a sap. But it’s the best day of the academic year.
In a very real sense, it’s the reason we do our jobs. It’s the reason the university exists—to give students a solid foundation in learning that they can apply the rest of their lives. To open the doors to the universe and see where they will go.
This weekend’s graduation was spectacular again—so many wonderful students crossed that platform; so many hands to shake, so many wishes to share.
And then there was one more.
All weekend long, there was commencement after commencement, from Friday evening through Sunday evening. The one I attended was Sunday afternoon. But I was back this morning, because in the most ruthlessly, beautifully efficient use of resources, the high school my kids attend–which happens to be annexed to my university campus–used the still-erected stage and already-wired sound system for their own graduation. And my oldest child marched down that aisle.
His hat didn’t fit and kept sliding to one side. His medal was twisted around to reveal a 20-sided die from Dungeons and Dragons taped to the back, as if that were his award. He looked uncomfortable, but also excited, anticipating. He was perfect.
I just sort of assumed my graduation stance and cried. I kept seeing him as a baby, as a kindergartner, as a miserable middle-schooler, and none of that fit with the vision of the tall, handsome young man he was walking down from the stage, diploma in one hand, doofy, ill-fitting hat in the other. He didn’t care about the hat. He was over it–moving on. He was happy.
That’s why graduations are great. No matter what happened on the way, they are crystalline moments where we get to pause and just be happy. Yes, tomorrow will bring more work, and we’ll have to set new goals and carry on. But to pause and recognize good work, to be content for a moment and celebrate success with those who have the most vested interest in your happiness, to breathe in a sweet breath of completion and accomplishment and not worry about what comes next for a little while: that’s worth a lot.
And to share in that feeling with hundreds of people at the same time—that’s some powerful magic.
Congratulations to the Class of 2018. We’re ready for you.

Damn Nature!

I may have my best excuse ever for not blogging last night. I spent three hours at Urgent Care having a bug flushed out of my ear.

It was awesome. I was batting around ideas yesterday as I collected final papers (I usually write on Mondays, so was thinking of a few things that merited a reflection), and End Of School Year thoughts were forming, when I felt a buzzing in my ear.
I asked my husband to come and listen, to see if he could hear it too, or if, finally, I was going crazy. He couldn’t. Not helpful. But I felt it move, so I was convinced.  I had taken a nap and gotten up to write, so it was conceivable to me that something visited while I napped. So, you know…on a scale of 1 to Death, how bad is a bug in your ear?
What followed was the Fairly Recent, Really, But Nonetheless Time-Honored Tradition of the Frantic Internet Search.
I lay down on my side, hoping my visitor would exit of his own accord, and Rob asked The Great and Powerful Google what to do if your wife has a bug in her ear.
Two things. Put a blade of grass in the ear, hoping the bug will grab on like a life preserver, and then drag it out. Failing that, drop olive oil in the ear until you drown the little sucker and it floats out on a wave of gold.
Sure. We did both. The grass was monumentally uncomfortable, for those interested. I don’t recommend.
Then my 15-year old daughter figured out there was something wrong with mom and came in to the bedroom as the hubby was peering purposefully in to my ear. She rushed to the bed and shouted, “Oh my god, mom!” as if there were half a dozen tentacles threading out of my ear. We need to work on her Crisis Voice.
Sure enough, Rob saw “something.” So we called Kaiser.
I was told to go to Urgent Care, not wait until tomorrow, which is always heartening. On the other hand trying to sleep, knowing you have a squatter in your ear canal probably wouldn’t be easy either.
The nurse saw “something” as well. The doctor did not. He just asked how I could be so calm and pleasant with a bug in my ear. Sweetie, this is nothing, I didn’t say, but thought. But it wasn’t. It was uncomfortable, disconcerting, deeply annoying, but not painful or bloody. Dude. I’ve had worse.
The good side of him not seeing anything was that there wasn’t, you know, a cockroach or a wombat in there. The bad side was that he relinquished duty to the nurse, who was awesome, and who flushed the living daylights out of my ear with four power blasts like a Super Soaker Battle Royale.
These assaults produced a little soft ear wax with what may have been bug parts and an ear canal so raw and inflamed, I now have to put antibiotic/anti-inflammatory drops in there four times a day for a week.
But there’s no more buzzing.
In retrospect, it wasn’t bad. My sweet husband administered the grass blade and olive oil with jokes and gentleness. He grabbed his chemistry tests and graded them in the waiting room with as much grace as if that were what he’d planned on doing with his evening. And he quoted fabricated statistics on the way to make me feel better–“No, seriously, it’s way more common than people think–something like 1 in 6 people. Thanks for taking one for the team.” He’s amazing.
The friend I texted to gripe about it was just as cheerful and supportive. “Damn nature!” she said, when I told her we were on our way home.
Hey, it gave me something to blog about.