27 February 2008

A Letter to My Students

Recently, spies at my old school informed me that some of my former students thought to google me. Apparently, they found this blog and came back with the information that A) Ms. Backes is writing a book! [True] and B) Ms. Backes has friends!! [Also true, and how flattering that it should come as a surprise to them. Reminds me of Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago, when my students were shocked to hear that I had managed to find someone who wanted to date me.

George: Are you married Ms. Backes?
Me: No.
Dan: Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: Yes.
Haley: YOU have a BOYFRIEND??????????
Me: (dryly) try not to sound so surprised.
Haley: You must be a LOT more exciting outside of school.

Anyhow, yes, children, Ms. Backes has managed to trick several people into being friends with her over the years, and yes, she’s probably more exciting outside school.]

As usual, I can’t resist the chance to hang out with students for a bit, so if you’ll forgive me, this next part is for any kid I was ever fortunate enough to work with, from the current 8th graders who are clever enough to google me but wouldn’t actually talk to me when I was there in December (hi 7th period!) to the now-in-their-mid-twenties folks who were in the first theater class I ever taught, in the mid-90s.

To My Students

Hey you guys,

I miss you! You probably don’t believe that, because you remember all the times I threatened to make you pay for my therapy bills. You probably assume that when I think about you, I think of all the giggles and whispers I was constantly shushing, the big round zeros in my assignment book I was always nagging you to complete for me, the notes full of middle school drama I liked to confiscate and pretend I was going to put in my imaginary book Whuz UP: Linguistic Particularities in Colloquial Pre-Adolescent Discourse. Of course I remember those things, and many more, believe me. But really? When I think of you guys I don’t think of picking up your candy wrappers after I expressly told said no food in my classroom, or of buzzing the office to send someone to find you when I knew you were ditching my class, or of washing my board for the third time in one day because you just couldn’t stop yourselves from drawing little doggies with circles for paws next to your name and basketball number, even when I hid all the chalk.

What I remember best are the times you made me laugh.

I have hundreds of pages of funny things you said, hundreds of snippets of conversation and quotations that made me laugh then and make me laugh still. I kept the stories and drawings and notes and cards you gave me, and over the years I’ve gone back to them, and they’ve helped me to face another day of whispers and candy wrappers. I miss the way you could always take me by surprise, how you were always far more clever and sly than anyone gave you credit for, how pleased you seemed when you could make me laugh out loud, even if it was for something ridiculous. Especially then.

I miss reading with you. A few years ago, some teachers and I were talking about what we’d do if we won the lottery, and of course the general consensus involved closing the school and moving to Mexico, but I said if I won the lottery I’d keep coming to school, I’d just stop giving grades, and turn my classes into writing groups and book clubs. We’d just hang out together and write stuff and read books together and talk about why we liked them. The best days in class were the days closest to that model: last year, when we pushed all the desks back and sprawled out in a circle on the floor together, or the year before, when we did nothing but read The Diary of Anne Frank for two weeks straight, no tests, no journals, no worksheets. We just read and talked. The time we did Nanowrimo together and did nothing but write novels for a whole month – that was awesome. The year before that, when we picked a country in the world and wrote a story about someone who might live there, with the understanding that ninjas can live anywhere. So fun.

You guys were also my favorite people to be around when things got sad and hard. Those of you who were in seventh grade in the fall of 2002 (and will be graduating this year, my goodness!), after the one year memorial service we had on September 11, you guys talked to me about the whole terrible event, and you helped me to keep faith in the goodness of the world. Or the following spring, when my cousin was killed in a car crash, you were the only people I could talk to, because you were the only ones who didn’t feed me BS about it. All the grown-ups gave me platitudes like “It was his time” and “He’s in a better place now,” until I wanted to scream. You guys just looked at me and said, “Are you sad? If my cousin died I would be really sad.” I was, and you were the only ones who just let me be sad without trying to gloss over anything. Thanks for that.

We talked about some tough stuff over the years: the Holocaust, the KKK, Hate Crimes, homophobia, racism, sexism, violence, fear, September 11, the Birmingham Church bombing, slavery, Matthew Shepard, Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, the deaths of people in our communities, suicides, addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, murder, rape. We kept tallies of how many times in a day we heard people using racist or sexist or homophobic epithets (and it was a LOT). You asked me why Hitler hated the Jews and then you told me about who you hated, two weeks later, and I tried to make you see that your reasons were just as dumb as Hitler’s were. We talked about Matthew Shepard and you brought me articles from the local newspaper about a similar Hate Crime that happened in our own town. Most of you made an effort to stop calling people fags and using “gay” as a synonym for “dumb” – at least in my presence. You wrote a lot about yourselves, and tried to find your own voices in spite of the fact that middle school pushes you to conform. You thanked me for giving you permission to be weird. You took my suggestion to use your imagination and ran with it. You came back from high school and told me that I would be proud of you: you’ve dropped a lot of the posturing you had in middle school and now you’re much more of an individual.

I am proud of you guys. I’m proud of you all. Don’t forget the things we talked about back then. Be weird and wonderful and creative. Be yourselves. Be kind to everyone, even the freaky kids. Don’t listen to gossip, and don’t spread it. Don’t let other people make up your mind for you. Judge everything for yourself, and always keep an open mind. Let yourself be surprised. Remember the power of language, and please call people out when they use racist or sexist or homophobic language in your presence. Be thoughtful and true to yourself. Keep reading. Keep writing.

Thanks for all the awesome times we had together, the great discussions and the games of Silent Desk Tag. Thanks for making me laugh. You guys were the funniest and best students a teacher could have.

Keep being awesome.

Ms. Backes

26 February 2008

My Little Pony: Princess Mononoke

Last night, we watched Hayao Miyazaki’s film Mononoke-hime, or Princess Mononoke, which – according to Wikipedia, at least -- is the third most popular anime film in Japan, after Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. For good reason. Princess Mononoke is beautifully animated and presents a tale of complex moralities in the struggle between the Humans and the Forest. Like Harry and Voldemort, it seems, neither shall live while the other survives. Only Prince Ashitaka, an exile from a long-lost tribe, understands the need to make peace between the two groups.

I have a deep-rooted (and totally irrational, I know) distaste for anime, which stems from this show Belle and Sebastian that was on Nickelodeon in the late 80s. I hated that show, and I’m not sure why. It’s about a little boy and his giant dog (a Great Pyrenees, probably) who live in the French Pyrenees – yes, the central plot focused on a dog, and still Young Molly could not love it. It was the weirdly moving mouths and eyes and the occasionally poorly-synced sound that bothered me. Also, as I recall, the kids were always climbing mountains and freaking out about something or other, and whenever they freaked out about something, their mouths opened and shut like lampreys. I hated that.

So the very fact that Princess Mononoke won me over says a lot for it; it’s good enough to charm an ardent anime disliker. What I loved especially about the film -- other than the gorgeous animation and the extremely charming character Yakul the red elk – was the complexity of the characters. No one (other than Yakul) is all good or all bad. Lady Eboshi (voiced in the English version by Minnie Driver) is the leader of the Human settlement Irontown, and though she thinks it would be a fantastic idea to kill all the animals in the Forest and cut off the head of the Forest Spirit, she also takes in lepers and buys the freedom of girls in brothels. Moro the wolf goddess (voiced by Gillian Anderson) wants to eat Lady Eboshi’s head and generally thinks that Humans should probably all be drowned like kittens, but she also takes in a human girl and raises her as a daughter, and will do anything to protect the Forest. It’s never easy.

The only part of the movie that gave me pause was the ending. Billy Bob Thornton and Minnie Driver manage to cut the head off the Forest Spirit, causing it to turn into a giant black ooze that searches the forest for its head and turns everything it touches evil or dead. Suddenly, the fight to stay clear of the black ooze becomes a matter of life or death. “Don’t let the ooze touch you!” people scream, running from its inevitable path.

The scene would have been very dramatic, probably, if it hadn’t reminded me of another animated movie: My Little Pony: The Movie. That’s right, Miyazaki’s lovely, classic film reminded me of a wretched example of cinematic prostitution existing only to sell more toy ponies, one which to this day is on record for being one of the weakest grossing feature films ever.

My film studies major sister will probably have a coronary at this comparison. Miyazaki… and Hasbro? Seriously?

Yes, seriously, and Megan, here’s why: I know you remember My Little Pony: The Movie, because we definitely rented it from Mr. Eddy’s video store more than once. Perhaps you recall the plot, which involves an evil witch making a PURPLE OOZE which covers PonyLand and which turns everything it touches grumpy and pessimistic. Miyazaki = Black Ooze, turns you evil; My Little Pony = Purple Ooze, turns you cranky. Just as the final scenes of Princess Mononoke have everyone running away from the Black Ooze, much of My Little Pony: The Movie involves ponies, dragons, flutter ponies, and some human kids (notably named Megan and Molly, which may explain why my sister and I watched that movie more than once) running away from the Purple Ooze. The Black Ooze destroys the Forest and Irontown; the Purple Ooze destroys PonyLand and the Dream Castle. The Black Ooze disappears when Ashitaka and San give the Forest Spirit’s head back to him; the Purple Ooze disappears when the Flutter Ponies come do “Utter Flutter” and free the Rainbow of Light, which attacks the witches who made the Purple Ooze and drops them in a volcano. Okay, so the denouement isn’t quite the same, but still. The Oozes and their effects are eerily similar.

After watching Princess Mononoke, I’m eager to see Miyazaki’s most popular film Spirited Away, which I actually promised Lisa I’d see years ago. I’d probably even see Howl’s Moving Castle, I was that enchanted by Miyazaki’s work. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me that Hayao wasn’t watching My Little Pony: The Movie with his grandchildren when he worked on the script for Princess Mononoke. I guess I’ll hold my judgment here, but if Spirited Away ends with Utter Flutter freeing the Rainbow of Light... well, Hayao Miyazaki, I got your number, and I’ll count it in tiny purple hoofbeats.

20 February 2008

Go Rest, Young Bear

I've gotten a couple of panicky emails asking where I am. "You haven't blogged in FIVE DAYS!! Are you alive??"

I am. I haven't. I'm sorry.

Here's the thing: the high -- the HIGH -- in Chicago today was 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I don't want to know what the windchill was. The sun was actually out, which was a nice change, but still? Twenty-two degrees below freezing is goddamn cold.

As it turns out, the HR people at my old job changed their minds once more, and they decided to make the job half what I did when I was there and half what I never want to do anywhere, and so once again the universe made that decision for me. Thanks, universe! Anytime you need help making a decision, I got your back.

So this week: no reason to leave the house (with the exception of a fabulous breakfast with my dear friend Kate Cannon on Monday) -- really really cold outside -- aaaaaaaannnd, our internet's broken. Therefore: peaceful hermitage. ("Till old experience do attain /
To something like prophetic strain...." Am I right? J-Milt? Cynthia knows what I mean.)

I've been sleeping a lot, shifting in my bed to absorb what sunlight I can find. For a while, I assumed that it was seasonal depression, back with a vengeance now that I'm firmly entrenched in this midwestern darkness. It came to my attention recently, though, that spending the winter snuggling doesn't necessarily mean I'm depressed. It seems I could also be a bear.

Given a choice between seasonal affective disorder and being a bear, I choose bear.

So dear reader, be assured: it's not that I'm too cold to blog, or too sleepy, or too busy revising my novel. Nope. I'm busy being a bear.

15 February 2008

Corporate Waste

Subtitle: Things I've Thrown Away This Week (Not Including My Heart)

On Tuesday, I spent the entire day making thirteen copies of a 60-page binder. 780 pages, plus all the binder tab pages (65). And the cover pages, 13. So... 858 pages.

This comprised about two, two and a half hours' work, and tons of paper cuts. The company paid approximately sixty dollars to have me do this.

At the end of the project, it turned out that the binders the project manager bought for the reports didn't match up to the hole-puncher we'd used, so the 65 page report didn't fit into the 13 brand new binders. The project manager looked at me, and I could see the thought "Redo" flashing in his eyes. Instead, I talked him into going into the supply closet for different binders. We found six binder that worked, and he ran off to order more of the same binder from the office supply company, to be delivered the next morning. The company paid about $25 for me and probably about $50 for him to take this hour plus just worrying about binders.

Then I boxed up four of the binders we had and fed-exed them off to the east coast, two-day delivery. It was a large box: let's say, what, $15, $20 to ship it?

The next morning, as I waited for the office supply delivery dude to bring me the new binders so I could finish up the remaining binders, a morbidly cheerful email appeared in my outlook inbox. Turns out that the big boss had made a "few changes" to the reports. Guess what: all 858 pages had to be reprinted. And the few changes included some extra stuff, so this time it was closer to 900 pages. So: the 858 pages from the day before? Landfill. Another two hours on the company's clock for me to print new copies of 900 pages, punch them, and put them into the OLD binders. Another $50 that the company paid to re-do a project. Neat. Once those were finished, I got to box them up and fed-ex them across the country. A new box went to the east coast, to replace the four we'd sent the day before, this time overnight. Total fed-ex cost probably around $50.

All this for a 65 page report of which the board will probably read about four pages, and maybe, maybe skim four or five others. And did I mention that everyone gets a PDF file of the entire document as well? So clearly, they really need a hard copy sitting in front of them. Not to mention the fact that as soon as the meeting's over, the report will become obsolete and worthless, and the entire thing, probably including the binder, will go right into the landfill. So ultimately, another 900 pages in the earth.

That was Wednesday.

Thursday, I only had to make three reports. I spent all morning looking up the correct files, printing them, collating them, punching holes (with yet another kind of hole puncher) in them, etc etc. Each report ended up being about 100 pages, plus the tabs, so about 324 pages total. Half-way through the day, the vice president directing this project changed his mind about half the files, and of course they all needed to be reprinted and repunched. The old files, of course, were tossed. Fifty pages in the garbage. Later that afternoon, as the frantic executive assistant and I were trying to finish the books to the exec's specifications, the exec walked over and demanded more changes. "This should make your life easier," he said. Turns out, half the book is unnecessary. 150 pages: garbage. Then it turns out that one of the three books is for him, and he actually doesn't need it, so actually you can just throw that away if you don't have time to do it... another fifty pages. Oh, and this file has been updated, so it has to be reprinted and re-inserted into each of the three -- no, two! -- books. Forty pages more, garbage.

All total, more than three hundred pieces of paper in the trash, all for, again, a report that someone in the suburbs may or may not actually read. And ultimately? Land fill.

Of course we fed-exed them over there... and did I mention that I spent most of my day working on this single project? As did the EA. Between the two of us, the company probably paid between $250 and $300 in labor to produce these two stupid books.

Today I get to stuff 200+ envelopes with promotional marketing stuff, six pages in each envelope, all of which will likely get thrown away before anyone even looks at it. More than a thousand pieces of paper... hours of labor stuffing envelopes and printing out stupid "personalized" cards... which might yield, what, one account?

Total for week (so far): 3,300 sheets of paper in the garbage.

And I'm just one drone in this office, and it's just one office on this floor, which is just one floor in the building, just one building in this city, which is just one city in this country, which is just one country in the world. If I, in five days, personally oversaw the dumping of 3,300 sheets of paper....

It hurts my heart to think about it. I keep picturing a tiny koala bear, snuggling into the crook of a tree, with a single tear sliding down his adorably sleepy face.

And then of course there's the small matter of the poor, rural school that was my home from 2003-2007, where the photocopy and/or risograph machines were broken more often than they were working, where I often had to spend my own money to buy extra paper and pencils for the students, where I had to write worksheets by hand onto overhead projecter sheets and have kids copy them into their notebooks because the xerox was broken or the school was out of paper or we couldn't afford to buy a new thing of toner, or or or..... In 2005, when we did Nanowrimo, the principal bought every one of my students a brand new notebook, and it was the biggest deal. They felt SO special. For some of them, it was the first new notebook they'd had in YEARS. Our district was so poor that the school board decided to save money by keeping the hallway lights turned off during the day. We didn't have many windows, and the dark hallways made the school feel so cold and unhappy.

Man, does our culture have its priorities screwed up.

Coming from there -- a rural school so poor we couldn't afford to turn the hallway lights on when the kids were there -- to here, where hundreds of dollars are wasted, daily, for impossibly stupid reasons -- it's hard not to feel anger at the unfairness of this world. It's a global society, and yet this marble corporate office feels like a whole different planet from the dark desert middle school I came from.

And yet, those kids, the ones so poor they never had their own notebooks until the principal bought one for them, they're the ones who will be suffering when the planet finally decides it's had too many binders and too many status reports dumped beneath its crust.

It kills me.

14 February 2008

My Favorite Holiday: Lupercalia!

Glad tidings to you on this most joyful of holidays: Lupercalia! Woo hoo!

In Ancient Rome, Lupercalia was the festival celebrating the wolf who mothered Romulus and Remus, the most famous feral children in history. The festival of Lupercalia involved sacrificial goats and dogs, wiping blood on the faces of naked boys who then ran around in goat-skin undies whipping girls with goat-skin thongs.

Sounds a lot more fun than a measly box of chalky candy hearts, if you ask me.

Whether or not Lupercalia was an ancient ancestor of the modern Valentines Day seems to be uncertain; in my research I've found arguments on both sides of the issue. Either way, Lupercalia was a pastoral festival, celebrating and promoting fertility. Although it seems that we are currently locked into an endless winter hell (I heard on the radio last night that yesterday was only one of four days all month that it didn't snow!), this morning when we walked out into the wan morning light, something in the air seemed to hint at spring. To hint very very very vaguely, but to hint nonetheless. Though it's probably too cold for naked boys to run around the town square, I like the idea of celebrating fertility in this seemingly dead time. It reminds us that death is necessary for rebirth, and that this endless winter gives the earth a chance to rest and renew itself for the spring that will come... eventually. Celebrating the cycles of life and birth and rebirth feels much more important, much more sacred and real, than celebrating a multi-billion dollar marketing machine that tells us to define our worth by the number of singing cards we get.

... but on the other hand, my valentine left Pride and Prejudice on DVD for me this morning. Would I trade Colin Firth for a festival of wolves and sacrificial goats? Aye, there's the rub. Mmmm... Colin Firth.

I guess we could compromise. We'll meet half-way.

Okay, executive decision: next year we're celebrating LuperColina, and we'll snuggle with wolves, dress in goat skins, whip each other, and watch Colin Firth dive into a pool of water again and again. Best of both worlds.

Happy Lupercalia!

12 February 2008

Even Better Than Summers Off

Everyone knows that one of the best things about teaching is summers off. When you're stuck in marble corporate hell, losing brain cells by the minute, slaving for your five personal days, summers off seems like some sort of fairy tale. Forget the fact that teachers commonly work sixty and seventy hour weeks, forget the fact that grading papers at home is one of the least fun activities in the universe, forget twenty minute lunches at your desk with a bunch of smelly tweens staring at you and asking if they can use your computer to download ringtones with their grandma's credit card number that they managed to memorize even though they still can't seem to get the difference between a noun and a verb, forget No Child Left Behind and idiotic co-workers and administrators telling you to "teach smarter, not harder," and parents demanding to know why you're not teaching eighth grade English in exactly the same way they were taught eighth grade English in their one-room school house with Mrs. McCreavy who hit them, forget bus duty and terrorism drills and lockdowns and parent teacher conferences and professional development plans and lesson plans and gradebooks and homework and knife fights outside your door and students getting arrested and curse words carved into your furniture and gross dads hitting on you and spending your own money to buy pencils and paper for your classroom and choir concerts and dances to chaperone and kids trying to sell you stuff to raise money for 4H and band and rodeo club and being told on a daily basis to fuck off and hearing the words faggot and homo and wetback fifty times a day and other teachers talking about you to students and your wallet getting stolen out of your classroom and other teachers crying and the heavy sense of overresponsibility that pushes you to yet another PTA meeting or board meeting or training session and no sleep and dreams about school and Sunday afternoons in the classroom trying to catch up.....


Summers. Off.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, seeing as how -- as it turns out -- I actually hate having a job. Given the choice between having a job and not having a job, I pick NOT. Summers off. Remember that? Ten weeks of not having a job? (Actually, I always taught summer school, so I'd only get like six weeks off, but still: six weeks off.) Believe me, I haven't forgotten the fact that by the time you hit summer, you feel like you need every single second of that break to reset your mind and recharge your spirit, because without those summers off you probably wouldn't come back next year, and if you did, it might be awfully difficult to get through the year without "accidentally" driving right through the bus pad one day after school and taking as many anklebiters down with you as you can, because by god if you're going down, so are they. Really, summers are crucial in keeping students safe.

Still, you know what would be even better than summers off?


I would go back to teaching in an instant if I could teach March - November. I would gladly fill my wardrobe with professionally appropriate sandals and shorts-that-look-like-skirts if I knew that there would still be five or six hours of daylight after I got off work. Summer? It's hot out! It would be comfortable to teach in a nice air-conditioned classroom, and on nice days we'd take lots of field trips to the big tree outside where we'd sit in the shade and read the classics together. Ethan Frome's a lot more palatable in the summer, when the frigid cold and depression of winter all seems like a bad dream! Teach Ethan Frome in February? Fantasize about driving into a tree. Teach Ethan Frome in June? Have a meaningful, empathetic discussion about the depths of the human heart, and then meet up with your buddies for frisbee and margaritas after school!

If schools had winters off instead of summers, snow days wouldn't be a problem, and students wouldn't miss precious days of standardized test training to the whims of the weather. Family vacations that used to happen in July? Take them over Christmas! Stay a month! Go somewhere warm, have fun! Everyone knows that the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day are almost worthless in the classroom anyway -- why not just take that time off, and let the students learn in the long, lazy stretches of uninterrupted summer time?

I miss teaching. Of course I do. I miss kids and autonomy and the freedom to do whatever you want on any given day and the moments when someone really gets it. Right now, though, it's not quite enough to win me back; I'm too happy with all the extra time and mental space I have to work on my writing. But believe me, if, rolling out of bed on a 9 degree morning, hours before the sun even thinks about showing up for its allotted one minute a day, if I could say to myself "If I were teaching right now, I wouldn't have to get up until March...." I would be back in the classroom in a heartbeat.... or rather, in the number of heartbeats it takes to snuggle my way through the last two weeks of February.

09 February 2008


Our house smelled weird. Was it the smell of winter coats drying, of the pile of laundry that should have been done a week ago, the lingering scent of microwave popcorn that ALWAYS burns, or the two bad mice who do nothing but bite each other on the face and poop? Maybe it was the boys below us who like to smoke and spill beer and pet dogs and let smelly homeless musicians crash on their couch; maybe it was that the trashcans in our alley are under two feet of snow and so garbage bags tend to stay in our kitchen longer than they should; maybe it was the simple fact that it's February in Chicago and the windows have been shut tight since before Halloween. In any case: weird. Not bad, exactly... but not good. Definitely not good.

We're not starving to death, yet, but we're living pretty close to the line here, and we can't afford to drop thirty bucks on candles every time the house smells a little weird.

So the other night, determined to change the prevailing odors of these winter-closed rooms, I whipped up a batch of Poorpourri, using only stuff I already had in my kitchen (because I try not to go outside unless I absolutely have to. Have I mentioned how cold it is? And it WON'T STOP SNOWING. I heard on the radio the other day that in the first eight days of February, we've only had eleven minutes of sunshine. ELEVEN MINUTES. I hate winter!)....

Ahem. Anyway. So, Poorpourri:

-- Water
-- Some chunks of an apple that was too little and mushy to eat
-- Apple Spice Tea bags
-- Lots of cinnamon. Tons.
-- Some nutmeg
-- Some sugar

Bring to a boil... and simmer for as long as you want. Add water & cinnamon occasionally. I ladled the mixture into smaller bowls and set them in other rooms until they cooled off, then dumped the cooled mixture back into the original pot.

It worked GREAT. My house smelled warm and rich and applecinnamony for days. When I walked in from the snow/rain last night, the house smelled so yummy and cozy that I almost -- almost -- appreciated the snow outside, wanted to curl up with a good book and watch the snow fall past the yellow streetlights on Western, and didn't even mind the sounds of my smelly neighbors playing the same eight-bar bass loop over and over for an hour. Such is the power of Poorpourri.

08 February 2008

Girl Friday, Temping in Corporate America

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, what with my expensive liberal arts eduation and my yay, feminists! break the glass ceiling, bitches! leanings, but... there is a part of me that really enjoys playing Molly Backes, Girl Secretary. (Does that need an exclamation point? I think it does.)

Molly Backes, Girl Secretary!

I like walking downtown in the raven black crowds of thin, hungry young people in their clacky heels and their pretentious bags. Ideally, I'd wear nylons with a seam up the back of each of my legs which disappears snugly into the heel of my two-toned pumps. I'll wear a jaunty hat and red lipstick and keep my fingers pertly arched over the keyboards, my perfectly groomed eyebrows raised and ready. Give me some office supplies: I will amaze you with my clever efficiency. Give me a letter to type: I will correct all your poor grammar and dangling participles. Give me a stack of invoices to file: I will file them alphabetically and chronologically, both. I will put sticky notes on everything. I will go the extra mile. What's that, Mr. Smith? You want me to explain the process through which a bill becomes a law while you renew my faith in Goodness and the American Spirit? I'm ready!

The beauty of temping is that it allows you to play work -- and even get paid! -- without actually having to work. I spent today on the 28th floor of a skyscraper downtown, putting labels on folders, alphabatizing things, um... typing... infused all day with the last-week-of-a-crappy-job attitude: this has nothing to do with me! This job in no way impacts my life! I am floating far above the drama and office politics, looking down with pity on you poor saps! Look at me, I have a visitor's pass and a temporary log-in! I'm free!

It reminds me of when I "worked" for my dad, over winter break one year in college. I'd show up to his office late, hung-over, wearing the same clothes in which I'd been dancing with strange men at some gross State Street bar mere hours before, and then delude myself into thinking that I was absolutely making an impact on his life by re-organizing his entire filing system. I was making an impact all right... wasting his secretary's time by allowing her to get me coffee and help hide my hangovers from my dad. Thanks, B, wherever you are! Haven't forgotten you!

Obviously, if this were a real job, I'd be mourning the slow erosion of my soul, watching the grey skies above the city with desperation. The office supplies wouldn't say, "Look how cute and efficient you can be" so much as, "How many ways can you slit your wrists with a paper clip and a pad of sticky notes?" I would get increasingly angry about petty things, like how is it that Jim always has a diet coke in his hand and yet he NEVER thinks to refill the fridge? Am I the only one in the building who knows how to brew a goddamn pot of coffee?

I'm sure I'll end up with one of those jobs soon enough, where the antics of my idiotic co-workers are enough to drive me absolutely insane, where I'm so annoyed that I'm even dreaming about how much I'd like to push them through one of those picturesque 28th floor windows.

But for now, for now... it's Ms. Backes Goes to Washington, it's Corporate Barbie on the Town, it's an endless month of Take Your Daughter to Work Day, with a little less coloring. With just enough fun... and just enough cash... to keep me coming back.

01 February 2008

The Grueling March of the Rewrite

I love my friends and family, and I’m relatively certain they love me, but lately I’ve been noticing a similar glazed expression in their eyes whenever I start talking about my novel. So, they say nicely, you’re… rewriting it? The unspoken word hangs between us like an impolite body odor: Still?

Yep. I am.

My favorite friends, the ones who are most likely to buy me a beer and maybe even some French fries when we go out, say, but we liked it so much already! It’s wonderful! What could you possibly have to do on the manuscript, still?

And I say, sadly: so much. So much.

Rewriting is a tricky endeavor. The first draft is a dizzying, careening, gleeful car chase through the countryside, in which you can follow any whim, whip around any corner, run stop signs, cut through backyards, hit birds and cats without slowing – anything goes! It’s great!

In the second draft, you go back over your route and see that it is quite mad, and there is a much more logical path to follow if you want to get from here to there. Your first dash showed you all the awesome little sights and secrets you wouldn’t have found otherwise; your second draft figures out a way to include all the best parts without hitting quite so many dead-ends. The third draft starts looking at themes and character motivations and story arcs and attempts to tidy up all the loose ends and unfired guns and pull everything together in a lovely, cohesive manner. Any subsequent draft after that is cosmetic, maybe looking at the language itself, maybe finding a scene here or there that could be tighter, cleaner, better paced, more interesting, prettier, whatever.

The fifth draft of my novel was good enough to get me an agent. My agent, who is wonderful and brilliant, who writes me little notes and sends me pictures of stick figures doing dances, loved my fifth draft, loved the story and characters and setting, and suggested a number of cosmetic changes: explain this character’s motivation, give me some backstory on this thing, make this moment a little more complex. So I did; I spent a month reworking, rewriting, adding a few sentences here and there to lighten, to darken, to color and shade and enhance.

And then…. we came to the seventh draft, and my agent and I had a big heart-to-heart, and we decided that a major plot point was problematic. This plot point, which drives all subsequent action in the story, actually hijacks the entire story, and after it no one has much room to think about anything but its aftermath. And that, we decided, is kind of a problem. Because the story isn’t about that one plot point, and yet, due to the nature of the moment, it must be. So… time for another re-write.

In order to take out the pivotal moment in the plot, the entire book must be reshaped. Good news: the story will be much more subtle and interesting and unique without it. Bad news: attempting to do this will be like assembling a turducken – the bones must be removed and the shape of the thing must be recreated and refolded into the larger structure of the real story. As it turns out, this will be incredibly difficult.

In the end, though, it will be great. Last night I finished re-writing the first chapter for probably the sixth time, and when I was finished I had a chill up the back of my neck. I stepped away from the computer gingerly, carefully hitting the ctrl+S and closing out the document, feeling as though I’d managed to get to exactly the right place by sheer luck and magic. Of course, it wasn’t luck or magic, it was months and months of hard work, it was hours of agonizing over character and motivation and plot, it was brainstorming with Ali and a bottle of champagne on NYE, it was workshopping the chapter at Story Studio and reading it out loud to myself, to Natalie, it was phone conversations and g-chats with the beer-buying friends who love me and love the story and who don’t quite seem to trust me not to fuck this up. But finally, at last, there it was, and it struck all the right notes, and it set the right tone, and it was exactly, entirely, at last… perfect.

In a moment I’ll open that document again and re-read it, and knowing me I’ll tweak some sentences, switch some words and re-think this one paragraph that I think needs to be there but doesn’t exactly fit, but finally I feel like I’m in a really good place with it, and in a few more days I’ll be finished with this turducken draft, and I’ll send it off to my brilliant agent, who will either have a little dance party in her office or write me a long letter about why it STILL needs a lot of work, and the march will continue.

Last fall, my future BFF John Green said that of the final, published draft of his wonderful book Looking for Alaska, only 10% of the original manuscript survived. “The challenge of the book, ultimately, was not writing it, which was easy, but revising it, which was hard.” He described writing a book as a lengthy game of Marco Polo: “I spent four years sitting in a basement, writing, saying Marco… and years later, I got an email from a reader, and basically all that email says is… Polo.”

So that’s what I’m doing with my life right now. That’s where I am. And even though it’s hard, agonizing, maddening work, I’m confident that the story will be better in the end, which makes it all worth it.