Teaching · Uncategorized

Back to School: Fall 2021

What. A. Year.

And by “year” I mean 17 months that feel like five years. And by “what” I mean quelle castastrophe, che bello, que año de cambios.

How are you? Are you still there? What is left and lost and undone and reshaped of you? I am tired. But just now, quiet and still and hopeful.

I’m teaching on campus again–just one class–so far, just one hour. And one of my husband’s classes was moved online after one day, so I’m very clear how precarious everything is, but one hour is more than I got all last year, and it was glorious—masks and anxiety and all.

It’s Myth as Literature again. And myth reminds me to think broadly, and we start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which reminds me to notice how beautiful humanity is and how ubiquitous change is, and I can feel some of my mushy insides congealing into a new butterfly.

So here is a teeny blog for re-emerging, as the academic year begins:

I hope you are finding parts of yourself you didn’t know were there and that you put them to use.

I hope if you’ve been working, you’re staying safe; if you’re rejoining the in-person workforce, I hope you’ve been safe and you begin to feel more confident every day.

I hope where you’ve lost has been healing, and that those holes give you some new perspectives to help you move forward.

I hope you read some things that distract you and challenge you that aren’t news items. And I hope you have the means and space and energy to pursue something new during this transition.

I hope you have let yourself grieve and continue to. And I hope even more that you let yourself rejoice.

And I hope when we get this pandemic under control and start thinking about how we want to live this next phase of our lives, we can agree that a butterfly would beautiful, but a phoenix would be better.

Reading · Uncategorized

Journey to the Center of the Real World, Part One

My son and I exchanged books on Christmas. Uncle Gerry had given me a copy of Norwegian Folktales, and him a copy of John Muir’s short works. They were thoughtful gifts—he knows I love folktales, and my son had talked with him at length about John Muir on several occasions.

But he underestimated the size of my library, and overestimated my son’s interest in reading nonfiction.

To be fair, I wouldn’t ask anyone to buy me a book of fairy tales unless I gave them an ISBN. That is one genre very well represented on my shelves. I teach folklore (because I love it), and that has given me an excuse to buy widely. Also my daughter and I make an annual pilgrimage to Solvang, where there is a Hans Christian Andersen museum and a well-stocked bookstore we visit dutifully.

All right; I’ll just say it. He bought a classic collection, and I already have three different translations of it. So I traded with my son for John Muir.

My daughter also received a book of environmental nonfiction: Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land. She gave it to me for “safe keeping.” By my count, she should be ready for it about twenty, maybe twenty-five years from now. This is speculation, of course, but informed speculation.

My daughter reads fantasy. My son does too. When they’re reading for pleasure, which is pretty frequently for American teenagers, they read fiction and some poetry. I remember this. I once told my mom (a biography nut) that there was no point in reading about real people; real people are boring. And I told my dad at the wise old age of 16 that nonfiction was useless. The real world was taking place all around us. If I was going to read, there should be dragons.

So I’ve seen this sort of thing before. But my kids are doing it a little differently. My son is reading that new folklore book with the intent of plundering it for content for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures. My daughter does this too. She likes novels with well-developed worlds and accompanying maps, in part because she draws her own maps for her D & D campaigns.

Where my experience and my kids’ overlap is in territory they’re not paying attention to yet, but I recognize it. While they read about all these magical places, they’re putting them to immediate use. But what they don’t see happening is the building of their own internal landscapes. They are stocking their brains with fantastic settings and spectacular characters whom they speak of as friends. These images and scenes are building up their framework for understanding the world—their frame of reference from this time forth. That is huge, and fantasy will do the job.

There must be families somewhere who like nonfiction as kids, but where we live, reality can wait. We have lots of years of Narnia and Hogwarts and Wonderland and Discworld before they can be tempted away by the majesty of the real world.

In other news, I have arrived at the age of loving nonfiction. And it is breathtaking.

Uncategorized

While the Light Lasts

This is a repost. I’m missing my dad more than usual. Hug your people, everyone:

Dementia is a degenerative disease. It does not improve. One does not recover. The best we can hope for is to slow the current, as what was your life–your character, your habits, and your memories–slips over the falls at the end.  But this is not a post about water. It’s a post about light.

In the summer of 2007, my dad was admitted to the hospital for internal bleeding caused by the deadly combination of diabetes and alcoholism. When they tried to treat his alcoholism, they found he couldn’t remember the next day what the counselor had discussed with him previously. Rehab was deemed unnecessary on the grounds that his dementia made it fruitless. It was the first we knew of the advanced state of his dementia. Mom had not wanted people to know, and she had not realized how serious it was. Old men get forgetful, now, don’t they? He had about a two-hour memory window, but couldn’t remember what had happened before—a flashlight with a two-hour battery.

I started researching dementia. For him and for me.

Two years later, that window had narrowed considerably. When I moved him in to an assisted living facility closer to me, I took him some books. I asked him if he wanted to read. No, it’s too tiring. I read aloud “Casey at the Bat” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” They are long poems, but poems we both knew well—poems he had read to me many times over the years.  I thought he had five minutes in him, at least. He did not. He did not have a whole sentence in him. By the end of the sentence, he couldn’t remember what the beginning had said. He was confused, disheartened, frustrated, and tired. His mind was a matchlight that burned out almost immediately. I started wondering how long his light would last.

This is a question we’d considered in my youth while talking about photography. Photography is all about light—capturing light, manipulating light, diffusing light, redirecting light. When we went camping, we took pictures, and some of the best were taken in the ‘tweener times—the dawn and dusk hours where light was softer and often broken by shadows. This was a time when the color of flowers looked rich, not bleached, washed out by the midday sun. It was also the time of wildlife.

Deer are most active during these hours, more mobile, on the lookout for food and water they dare not seek during the bright light. The shadows keep them safer. The shadows also give them a texture, a depth, and the pictures taken during those hours convey a coziness and intimacy that is not attainable in full sun or in the darkness that follows dusk. It’s important, then, to shoot precisely during that window—after the sun has set but before the darkness obscures your vision completely. We shoot not frantically, but with purpose, and with intent to make the most of a fleeting opportunity, to take the best pictures we can in the best circumstances. Had I known this would become so comforting a metaphor for life, I would have paid more attention during those moments.

Sitting in his room in his retirement community, reading Robert Service aloud, I longed for epigrams instead of ballads. I sang him songs. Short songs, never the second verse. I wanted to give him cozy, comfortable memories, but distilled. I learned to speak in images: I bought a new car; the granddaughter lost a tooth; the roses are blooming. I brought in books of buildings and bridges, so we could look at them together (he was an architect). We looked at one picture, pointed out a favorite feature, and then put the book away. When words and images are illuminated in flashes, lasting only a moment, you learn to winnow the world down to beautiful seconds. If your whole life is one moment, with no connective tissue to others, you want to make each moment beautiful.

This is why dementia patients need caregivers (apart from the obvious, practical reasons).  If someone is there, pointing out lovely things, life is lovely. If not, the odds that they’ll think of a lovely thing are long; they’re more likely to start and then become confused, as the darkness gathers in their mind. Those of us without dementia benefit from perspective; we see things in a panorama or a film, with scenes succeeding scenes. Our current scenes have a past, a trajectory we can see, and a future we can sometimes predict.

And all this cycling through days and nights and dawns and dusks serves us best when it reminds us to take the best shots we can while the light lasts.

Uncategorized

The Woman in the Moon

This is a re-blog. It is finals week after a looooong first year on semesters, and I am tapped. But I’m also outraged about recent Iegislation concerning women’s rights to privacy and bodily autonomy, so I feel like to blog I wrote after the first Women’s March might have some renewed relevance. And it never hurts to be reminded of Artemis. If you have read this, thanks and apologies. If you haven’t but are about to, thanks, and I hope you enjoy it.

(January 2017) I have a very literary view of classical gods.  My understanding of them comes through years of studying literature—some more “authentic” texts than others (if we regard Apollodorus and Hesiod more authentic than Ovid, and Ovid more authentic than Chaucer or Spenser or Rick Riordan).  The gods have a tradition and a history as archetypes and characters, and I think about them fairly regularly for a 21st century American.

Artemis

Diana/Artemis came up recently in my Chaucer class, for instance.  When I teach “The Knight’s Tale,” we talk about the gods whom the characters pray to for support.  The two young men who are in love with the Amazon Emelye pray to the god they think will help their suit—Arcite prays to Mars, since there will be a battle for her hand, and he wants to win.  Palamon goes straight to Venus, asking for her help in his love suit.  Emelye, on the other hand, prays to Diana.  She wants above all to remain a virgin, and if that doesn’t pan out, to marry the man who loves her the most.

Chaucer’s Diana condescends (very literally) to explain things to Emelye.  This almost never happens.  When one prays to a classical god, a flame flickers or a sweet odor wafts in to say yes.  The gods don’t chit-chat.  But Diana does here, and it is remarkable.  Perhaps because Emelye is an Amazon, a virgin who wishes to stay chaste, an obvious candidate for Diana’s troupe of nymphs in the forest–whatever the reason, Diana speaks.

Diana is the goddess of the moon.  As such she is associated with women’s cycles and with childbirth (the waxing moon representing the growing belly of a pregnant woman). She is also the first midwife, helping her mother Latona deliver her twin Apollo moments after she herself is born.  She is a virgin goddess, yes, but because of these associations, she is also the patron of childbirth—of that moment in a woman’s life when she is her least rational, most wild.

Diana defends the wild, as well.  She lives in the forest, eschewing the bright light of civilization and knowledge and patriarchy that Apollo represents.  She is the protector of animals, especially of their young, and of the wild in general.  She is the huntress, and the slivered moon is her bow.   She keeps balance in the forest by hunting, so one species doesn’t overrun another, and she is the goddess of instant death: if a woman dropped dead instantly (say, of a heart attack or a stroke), she was said to have been struck by Diana’s arrow.  She shares that appellation with her brother, who is the god of instant death (he shot men; she shot women).

In fact it is well to understand her in light of her brother.  They share the archer role, but they contrast in far more ways.  She is the moon; he is the sun.  She is wildness and soft, reflected light; he is the bright, illuminating planet by whose rays we see wisdom, prophecy, the arts, medicine, civilization in all its various facets.  He is the polis, the body politic.  She, though, she is wild.

Diana turns her back on the civilization Apollo offers.  She leaves.  No man will rule her; no sun will drown out her softer light.  She lives in and becomes the wild.  She is fierce.  She can be ruthless.  Actaeon stumbles across her bathing, and she lashes out at him, transforming him in to a stag who is immediately hunted and ripped apart by his own dogs.  She is resistance to the established, straight and narrow, well-lighted path.  She is the crooked path through the dark forest.  She can be violent and is always subversive.  She lights but dimly, and she roars in the darkness.

She’s been on my mind a lot since the Women’s Marches on January 21st.  Apollo, whom I most readily associate with, as he is patron of the arts and culture and poetry, is the literal light that illuminates our lives and spirits.  But sometimes it is appropriate that he yield to Diana, whose overriding impulse is not to yield.  She resists.  And right now, I’m finding her message pretty compelling

Uncategorized

New Year, New Blog

It’s the same blog, really. I just moved platforms. (Thanks, Kate!)

I’m still writing about reading and teaching and writing and how they intersect with my family and my world. I’m still collecting and reflecting and creating stories, but I hope they are easier for you to navigate here.

I will be moving days, too. Now this will be a Tuesday blog, for purely boring, practical reasons. And I won’t post for real until this coming Tuesday; I’m taking a real break after that long, first semester, and I hope it will help me to come back to life in lots of areas–back to school, back to writing, back to life after our laughable but lovable Southern California winter.

See you soon.

Cuvelier, 1856
Reading · Uncategorized

The Meta Blog, or How Reading About Reading Is Making Me a Better Reader

So this is a “Reading About Reading” sort of musing. I’ve recently read Maryanne Wolf’s marvelous new book, Reader, Come Home, which is part Neuroscientist Explaining For Lay Persons How Reading on the Internet is Changing Our Brains, and part Clever Plan to Evolve Purposefully in the Face of a New Shift in Text and Literacy.

I’ll say a bit about this book, a bit about where I’m going from here, and then offer a reading list I’ve given myself and would love to talk about with similarly interested humans.
 
Reader, Come Homeis a written as a set of letters, a real, old-fashioned epistolary book, evocative of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. It is also a series of love letters to the genre of the novel, which she worries may be in danger. But mostly in this book, the author explains the science of reading.
In a brilliant metaphor of the circus, Wolf illustrates the multiple centers of the brain involved in reading, and shows how they represent an adaptation of using multiple centers in quick succession and simultaneously. Reading involves the “circus rings” of the Vision, Language, and Cognition centers in the brain, but also Motor Functions and the Affective center. Suddenly those memes about your brain on television (barely any activity) vs. your brain on books (huge chunks of your brain lighting up) become clear. It takes a lot of work to read, especially to read deeply.
This is enough, frankly, to set my mind whirring for days, but thankfully she’s got a trajectory that kept me moving forward. She’s discovered that our reading patterns have shifted in response to all those hours skimming news on the Internet, zipping from article to vine to clickbait, and that while we are capable of reading much more, we are losing our ability to read deeply.
Reading deeply (she shows a serious predilection for novels that this medievalist finds limited, but forgivable) has been linked to increased empathy, to stress reduction, to critical thinking, and even to happiness, but our ability to sustain deep reading is waning. Even people who have been excellent deep readers are becoming less so in the onslaught of internet reading.
But she offers some hope, too. She advocates training up the next generation as “bi-literate” by which she means able to switch modes given the medium. Little children should be read to from print picture books, and in school they should learn how to use and manage electronic texts, while continuing to develop a relationship with print. (There are lots of reasons to love print, but I think that’s for a different blog.) In this way we can grow readers who navigate the internet without losing their ability to read deeply, for there are simply too many benefits to being able to read deeply.
You can imagine, for a person who writes a blog on reading, that this book has been a bit of a head cannon. I am puzzled by the idea that we’re not able to read deeply, given the publishing world’s continued success, and my English majors’ habits, but maybe we’re reading “lighter” fare? (Maybe not. I need to be convinced of this. Someone quick—do a study for me.) I am comforted, too, by her findings on children reading print books, as someone whose very favorite moments of child-rearing involved storytime. And I find comfort as a literature professor who aims every year to get more young people intoxicated by the stories of the Middle Ages.
Science now says we need to read. And we need to give it our full attention.
So, naturally, I’ve started another list of books to read in my copious spare time:The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr

Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Why Read? By Mark Edmundson
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.
Apparently I’m not alone in my interest here. But before I get to these, I have a mystery novel I’ve been putting off for too long. Happy reading, y’all.
Living · Reading · Teaching · Uncategorized

Ode on a Shortened Summer

The most glorious myth of academic life is the summer vacation. People who don’t teach sometimes assume the summers are one long, three-month margarita party. That’s never the case, of course, although some may start out that way.

Alas.
Instead, those who work at state universities, at least in my experience, spend a significant chunk of summer doing the research or creative work they don’t have time to do during the school year. Then there’s the planning of next year’s courses. This year that was dramatic and demanding, as my school converted from a quarter system to a semester system, so even people who have been teaching the same things for some time had to reconceive their syllabus, reading lists, and teaching strategies.
There’s also a very real need to rest one’s head and do something different for a bit, so you can come back strong. I try to reserve time to read things I will never have occasion to teach. I wrote a beautiful list and made a stack of books at the beginning of summer. In addition to three more novels in my lovely, pulpy, mystery series, I intended to read twelve books, mostly fiction, one a re-read of a book I haven’t read since college (Kamouraska by Anne Hebert).
This year’s haul from Solvang. The Book Loft always has the best new fairy tales.
Looking at my list now, I only read four, started four more, and don’t know exactly what happened with the others. I never even pulled the mysteries off the shelf. I did, however, read a tall stack of new fairy tales I bought on a trip with my daughter, write a handful of blogs and a pitch for a children’s novel, and now I am plowing through three non-fiction books I just HAD to read before school starts.
I guess what I’m realizing that what’s valuable about summer for me is the ability to plan and then pitch the plan entirely.
From September to June everything has to be very carefully orchestrated. I keep list after list and plan and organize, so that all goes well in my classes and professional life. Summer is a welcome rest for my brain not just because I’m not prepping, teaching, or grading, but because I can afford to go unscripted for a while. It’s very liberating.
This summer, because we are shifting from quarters that ended in June to semesters that start in August, our summer is about seven weeks instead of eleven. And scripted or not, it has been jam-packed. We’ll be ready, because we must be, but we might all be starting out a little tired, which we usually don’t, I think.
I resisted this conversion for a long time. I voted against it. I grumbled when our vote was ignored, and we were simply told to convert. But now, staring down the barrel of my first week, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ll have sixteen weeks instead of ten to get to know my students better. I’m glad to have more time to go deeper in the texts I teach and to assign more writing and more revision. I’m part of an academic family, so I’ll be glad to have more holidays match up and have some more time off in the winter. Mostly, though, I’m just always glad to go back. That’s the real perk of this job—not the summer break, but the fall return.
Living · Uncategorized

Twenty-Four Tiny Treats

I am an Advent junkie.

I like lots of things about the idea of Advent as it is expressed today. I love the countdown to something wonderful—whether it be the celebration of the birth of Christ, the return of the sun, or the warm fellowship of family and friends. And I seriously think we should count have countdowns more often.

But let’s start with Advent. One of the immediate benefits of this custom is the extension of a shortish holiday in to a long, glorious season. With Christmas, you really just get the two days, and sometimes day and a half, of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Kwanzaa celebrates seven days; Hanukkah gives you nine nights. Those few, intrepid traditionalists who celebrate the 12 days from Christmas to the Feast of the Epiphany get—you guessed it—twelve. But Advent lets you double that—24 little celebrations.
And you get those lovely calendars that help you mark your progress. All you have to do is wake up the next day to earn another Advent treat.  Depending on the calendar you use, that treat can be something as small as moving a felt bird from pocket to pocket, to opening doors on a cabin that produce another forest critter for decorations, to drawing out a paper with a different celebratory activity or a holiday story to read, to receiving little presents—candies or toys or tea or whisky.  It’s all good.
In my house, we celebrate a lot. And I plead guilty to both the decorating type and the treat type of Advent calendars. The ritual moment of moving that silly little bird is still lovely.
When my kids were little, we did the activities and the story time.  I stocked little tins with slips of paper that told us to make paper chains and to read Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. We had Lego and Playmobil calendars a couple years. We did candy treats the last several years, and I’ve paid for access to electronic Advent calendars with games and interactive scenes.
But we always do something.
There is something powerful about knowing you have a treat coming that turns a normal month in to a time to anticipate and enjoy. Something nearly meditative that brings one in to the moment for a short time each day, as we pause to pull out another critter or munch our treat, to notice where we are in the month and to take a step forward purposefully.
I’m not saying we should have countdowns every month. (I can hear my dad saying if we did it all the time, it wouldn’t be special.) But I am grateful for a tradition that draws out good cheer over weeks instead of hours, that encourages delight in small things, and that forces us to pause and notice our progress.


Enjoy the whole season, y’all.

Uncategorized

How to Hook a Reader, and How Not to: The Fault in Our ARs

This is the second of two blogs on external reading incentive programs and why I think they can’t help but fail, sometimes causing damage as they do. AR is the acronym for Accelerated Reader, the program at use in my kids’ public schools in Los Angeles county, and the beast I fought on the way to raising readers.

There are lots of problems with reading incentive programs, and I addressed my big, philosophical problems three weeks ago: I think the system can be gamed, and if it isn’t, it can do more damage by training kids to read superficially. In this installation I raise some AR-specific (and possibly district-specific) gripes that my kids had to work around.

One problem with AR is that it depends on levels of reading, and when a child’s reading level is established, at least in our schools, kids were unable to read outside of their range. I have trouble with pigeon-holing kids in to levels in the first place, but if it means they are actively discouraged from reading widely, I think it’s doubly awful. 

What gets and keeps kids reading is letting them choose what they want to read, and if you tell them they can’t read something above or below their reading level, two bad things happen. First they lose the benefits of “comfort-reading,” where they read easy stuff that they just enjoy, and second, they are discouraged from really challenging themselves. Sometimes kids are interested in books beyond their ability, and telling them they can’t read them might mean losing a critical moment when they could have fed a passion. Kids learn by reading demanding texts, and if they choose something way beyond their ability, the higher road is to help them through it, rather than tell them it’s too hard for them.

The other loss from limiting kids’ reading choices is that they can’t always read what their friends are reading. This is a huge loss. Kids come in every day talking about what they saw on television or at the movies, and they love to talk to their friends about it. But if they happen to test in to a level way above or way below their friends, they will never be able to talk about the books they have read. We know as adults we love talking about books we’ve read—book clubs are popping up everywhere—but we deny kids that pleasure when we limit the books they can choose to read.

So much is at stake when our kids learn to read. If they love it, they do better in all their coursework. If they love it, they have a lifetime of cheap entertainment and an opportunity to grow continually as they read throughout their lives. If they dread it, they can struggle academically and psychologically. 

Why, then, don’t we do what we know works? Let them choose what they want to read? The short answer is time. Teachers with wide gaps between kids’ skills don’t have time to meet every child where they are and move them gently forward—would that they did. For instance, when my daughter was in 3rd grade, kids in her class were testing at kindergarten to 12th grade reading levels, while all the text books were at third grade level. That means some kids are bored, and some are lost and struggling every single day. (Another answer to that question is that reading programs and other testing companies are BIG business, but I am not that cynical today.)

In the absence of a private tutor, then, a kid needs someone—a parent, a librarian, a friend, just some grown-up who can discuss the books the child reads. Someone needs to listen to what they like, make suggestions for appropriate books, and discuss them afterward. They need to check if the book was too difficult, too scary, too mature, or just right, and follow up with another book.That’s how you hook a reader—show them something amazing, and then tell them there is more… lots more. (If that person could read some aloud, that would be even better, but that is a different blog.)

Ultimately, of course, every kid is different. That’s why they need different books along the way to becoming book worms. We just all need to pitch in; we can’t dump this responsibility solely on teachers. We can all help, putting the right books in to kids’ hands at the right time. That’s a sure-fire way to change the world.