29 November 2007

Earworms! (The Meta Meme)

The delightful Miss Sarah Aswell of BROOD tagged me for her evil meme. According to Richard Dawkins (not to be confused with Richard Dawson -- researching memes, I wondered when the host of Family Feud had time to write books about culture and invent words between kissing so many women on The Feud), a meme is a transmittable unit of culture, such as a joke, rhyme, or jingle.

…Or formulaic blog entry. Dawkins didn’t know to include blog entires on his list of meme examples, because he made them up in 1976 and blogs didn’t show up on the scene until the 90s.

Ideas – culture bites – that spread from mind to mind like a virus? It’s all so Hundredth Monkey, isn’t it? (Camille, I must confess: I still have the copy of The Hundredth Monkey you lent me in 1997. As it turns out, those monkeys never psychically learned to wash sweet potatoes, and the human race will probably never psychically learn not to proliferate nuclear weapons, either.)

Anyway, thus tagged, I will meme, but I will not tag. The virus ends here!

Seven things:

1. I always have a song in my head. I almost always have music playing – in the car, on the computer, in the living room – for the sole purpose of setting my internal radio. Either the song in my head is whatever’s currently playing, or it’s some infernal piece of musical nonsense that’s gotten stuck in my head. There’s actually a term for this: it’s called an earworm. Apparently OCD or anxiety medication would help to quiet the jukebox in my head….

2. Which makes me think that it’s a problem. Constant music in my head never seemed like a problem until I read that people take meds to stop it. See how that works? I always thought that my constant internal jukebox made me SPECIAL, not CRAZY. And now I’m going to be chewing on this like Zeke with a yogurt container, until there’s no more yogurt and it’s full of tooth holes and I’ve ingested my fair share of plastic. (But I’m not crazy!)

3. Sometimes, the songs that get stuck in my head are completely embarrassing, and I have to be very careful not to start whistling or humming to myself lest someone recognize the tune and make fun of me. “Are you seriously singing ‘Bop to the Top’ from High School Musical??”

4. The only clear defense on that one is: “You recognized it.” (This closely follows the classic “You smelt it, you dealt it,” line of defense.)

5. A good thing about earworms is that I have the ability to change them, if I focus. This way, if the current song in my head is completely and utterly inappropriate to the situation at hand (“Baby Got Back” at a funeral, or NIN’s “Closer” – well, ever) I can consciously switch it to something less inappropriate. Songs I most frequently switch my brain to: Prince, “Purple Rain” (the first 18 bars or so are SO PRETTY! Seriously.); Martin Sexton, “Glory Bound;” and “As Long As You’re Mine” from Wicked -- again, those first 18 bars.

6. Predictably, the earworm in my brain after this weekend was – you guessed it -- You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant….

7. My current workplace charmingly plays piped music from some XM station or another. In the last four months, the station has changed four times: First we had a 60s station that played exactly 100 songs from 1960-1969, in the same order every day. This station nearly killed me. Second, a 90s station that played all manner of songs from my teenage years. Believe me, after a month of the exact same Beach Boys songs at the exact same time every day, just the idea of Four Non-Blondes made me want to weep with joy. Sadly, we only had a week of the 90s before someone got wise and switched the music to a 70s station. While the 70s was much better than the 60s, and as much as I enjoyed hearing “Free Bird,” “Castles Made of Sand,” and “Space Oddity” every single day, I would find myself humming, inevitably, Planet Earth is blue… and there’s nothing I can do-ooo…. when I was supposed to be listening to my coworkers. It was a mixed blessing, then, when someone finally changed the station to the “Crappy Lite Jazz” station, so now instead of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” I get to hear even liter versions of James Taylor songs. Goody.

At least it’s not Christmas songs. Nothing gets in your brain like a Christmas song. And once there, it –

Oh, god.

Crappy Lite Version of “Little Drummer Boy.”

Maybe I do need anti-anxiety medication, after all.

28 November 2007

Escaping the Cultural Wasteland That is My Life, or: My Mother Makes Me Cool

As she is the person who brought me into this world, who began listening to what I had to say before I even had words to speak, who spent the early 80s feeding me applesauce and cheerios, my mother is generally predisposed to like me. We’ve been hanging out together since the Carter administration, and for the most part, my mother seems to think I’m pretty okay.


Every now and again, I manage to display my wanton ignorance and cultural illiteracy in such a way that so clearly pains her I start to wonder if she’s trying to figure out how to dump me.

This happened twice over Thanksgiving.

First: The Case of Alice’s Restaurant.
The setting: Thanksgiving morning, in the kitchen.

Mom: I got to hear the best Thanksgiving song on the radio this morning!
Me: What’s that?
Mom: “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Me: [blank look]
Nat: [blank look]
Mom: (hopefully) You know… ALICE’S RESTAURANT??
Me and Nat: [blank looks]
Mom: YOU GUYS! Ugh! You’re eating in the garage! I can’t believe you!!
Me: Um, I feel like I’ve heard of it… I think they mentioned it on XRT the other day….
Mom: Of course they did! God, you are so lame!! [She runs out of the room.]
Me: Um… guess we’re eating in the garage.

A minute later she reappeared, joyfully carrying a copy of Alice’s Restaurant on VINYL, probably from the album’s original 1967 release, probably handed to her by Arlo Guthrie himself, ten minutes after he first recorded it. “Do you even have a record player?” I asked doubtfully.

Of course she has a record player. She still has the blanket from my crib (the dog sleeps on it) and the baby scooter she scooted around in during the Truman years. Making the record player WORK was another story; she made me take it apart and fix it, which first required figuring out exactly how a record player works, then figuring out why this one wasn’t working, then trying to tape the broken belt thingy back together, and finally replacing the broken belt thingy with a giant rubber band, which actually did work. Kind of.

So then we all trooped into the living room and listened to about five minutes of the scratchiest, garbledliest nonsense you’ve ever heard, of which we weren’t able to make out more than the frequent repetition of the word “garbage.” Nat and I listened patiently but finally admitted we had no idea what was going on, and my mother gave up. We returned to the kitchen to peel some potatoes. Mom disappeared again, reappearing a moment later, triumphantly, with: Alice’s Restaurant! On CD! So we went BACK to the living room, where this time we got to hear a very understandable and charming version of Arlo Guthrie’s 20 minute long song/story/poem “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” And of course we were charmed, and we even laughed a few times, and at the end we asked my mother questions about the sixties and the draft and the crazy long-haired young folks back then and she gave a long, happy sigh and said, “It was a different time.”

I sense a tradition.

Second: The Case of Jane Austen
The Setting: After dinner, the same day.

Me: I’m reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time.
Mom: For the first time?
Me: Yes, I’ve never read Jane Austen.
Me: No, but I read Jane Eyre in three different classes….

The answer is: I’m not sure. I took a lot of weird, specific classes as an English major (Post-colonial feminist literature, Milton seminar, “Women/Writing/Nature” and so forth) and daydreamed through my required Brit lit survey courses (when I went to study for my “Traditions of English Literature” exam, I found pages and pages of notes with drawings of severed heads and doodles and ‘Matthew Arnold… Dover Something… I like puppies!’). But really, no one ever made me read Jane Austen, and I think I’m glad. I have a feeling that Pride and Prejudice is one of those books I would have been, well, prejudiced against if I’d been forced to read it as a teenager.

Instead, I got to read it this week and LOVED it. It looks boring, and it’s a little hard to get into, but Pride and Prejudice is the gushiest, girliest, OMG romantic book I’ve read in a long time. I read the last 100 pages at my desk between calls yesterday, feeling both indulgent and academic, because though it is a gushy girly smoochfest, it is also a Great Book and Classic Literature.

You’ve probably already read Pride and Prejudice (or seen the movie – even I have seen part of the Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy version), so I won’t say too much more about it. However, if, like me, you’ve been living in cultural sin and haven’t gotten around to reading it yet…. DO. It’s the perfect combination of edification and enchantment.

Thanks, Mom! Please don’t dump me yet.

26 November 2007

Thanks for Putting Me Straight, Rolling Stone!

Dear Rolling Stone Magazine,

As a second-generation reader (my mother has been a faithful subscriber lo these 40 years), I have grown up with you. I have used your pages in my collages and dioramas. I have learned about the sacred icons of my parents’ generation. I have been inculcated with the values of the aging hippie left. I have appreciated your frequent use of the word fuck.

Rolling Stone, you are the first thing I look for when I go home. How many times have we curled up together under the covers, or soaked together in the bath? We have traveled together, Rolling Stone, we have weathered countless flight delays and painfully long layovers. You took my hand and you taught me, Rolling Stone, not just about the musical tastes of the Baby Boomers, but about all the naughty things they did when they were my age. You helped me to love John Kerry as much as I love my own aging Vietnam veteran father. In my teen years, you encouraged me to seek out friends like Tim Leary and Ken Kesey, and taught me that if I ever wanted to have any music cred whatsoever, I’d better learn to love those Beatles and good old Bob Dylan. Even now, Rolling Stone, with your constant reminiscing and looking back, you help to remind me that I – and indeed, my entire generation! – will never be as cool as you and my parents were back in 1967. That was the year to be 27, wasn’t it? Being 27 in 2007 is totally for poseurs. Am I right, Rolling Stone?

Rolling Stone Magazine, I want to thank you for your recent 40th Anniversary Super Interview Issue, which, in your own words, “looks forward, not back, and it’s packed with interviews with the artists, leaders and thinkers who can best divine what our future holds.” See? You can look forward, Rolling Stone! You’re not always rehashing your glory days! You’re part of the Now, Rolling Stone! You still totally have your finger on the pulse of America!

Rolling Stone, thank you for reminding me that the people “who can best divine what our future holds” are white men. Of course they are!! Oh, Rolling Stone, you know me: I was raised by your readers! The very aging leftist hippies who supported you all these years. Of course they taught me that things were getting better for women in this country! Of course they taught me that racism is wrong. They’re hippies!

But you know better, Rolling Stone! You know that of the “twenty five artists, leaders, and thinkers who can best divine what our future holds”, only three of them are women! Silly women, what do we know about the future?? We can’t do anything! We could barely make it onto your list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. We can’t play guitar, we clearly can’t rock, so how could we possibly divine what the future holds as well as someone who rocks as hard as, say, Dave Matthews or Tom Hanks? Those dudes really rock!

Of course, Rolling Stone, the whole Civil Rights movement happened waaaaay before you came on the scene, and it’s a good thing, too, because you’ve had plenty of time to pay equal rights lip service while reminding us all that of the “twenty five artists, leaders, and thinkers” only three of them are black. And don’t even get me started on black women! They can’t make any of your lists, Rolling Stone! Why bother even trying for a token black woman? You wasted six precious interview slots on tokens already! Don’t even get me started on the fact that the future of America seems to lie with the Hispanic population who are slated to make up almost 20% of the overall US population by 2020. They’re not the future, are they Rolling Stone? Good thing you didn’t waste a single interview on a Hispanic – or any other cultural or ethnic group!

The problem with my parents, Rolling Stone, is that they spend SO much time looking back at the “good old days” of increased civil rights and the crazy “women’s lib” movement that they can’t see the future clearly. But you can! You know that the future holds nothing but white boys!

Thanks for keeping it real, Rolling Stone! Here’s to another 40 years – let’s hope your 80th Anniversary Issue is chock full of interviews to disillusion MY daughters and free them from their capricious liberal ideals!

M. Molly Backes

21 November 2007

Thanks for Nothing, WEATHER!

It’s 39 degrees and raining in Chicago today. According to the National Weather Service, it’s only 51 in ABQ right now – but it’s clear, and yesterday it was 71 degrees.

Let me recap: yesterday in Chicago, foggy and cold. Yesterday in Albuquerque, SEVENTY DEGREES.

I’m staring out the windows right now, watching the exhaust of the cars curl through the bouncing rain, consumed by thoughts of my imminent drive to Wisconsin. Will it snow? Should I wait until morning to avoid the [soul] crush of traffic leaving the city, outsmarting not only the residents of Chicago but also the weather gods and suicidal deer sure to throw themselves in front of my truck on the way home? Should I pack a shovel and boots to dig myself out of the inevitable ditch?

Did I mention that it was seventy degrees in Albuquerque yesterday?

What am I doing here??

Funny story, but there was actually a time when I *missed* the Midwest. I whined about the lack of pretty fall colors (not many trees in NM, and the ones that are there mostly turn yellow), the lack of bracing fall weather, the lack of snow. The lack of snow! Was I insane? Last year at Thanksgiving, I stood outside on the patio and threw the ball for the dogs while I waited for my casseroles to cook. In a tee shirt. And no shoes. This morning, by contrast, I put on a sweater over my sweater, and then a coat, and a scarf, and isotoner gloves, and then stood outside in the freezing cold with rain pinging at my face while my bus took ten years to mosey on down to my stop.

Four years in New Mexico turned me into a major winter baby. My first winter there, I hardly wore a coat; by year four, I was complaining when the temperature dipped below sixty. I’d come home to Wisconsin for Christmas and refuse to leave the house unless the temperature went above zero. “One degree? Is that too much to ask?” I’d say, and all the hardy Midwesterners would laugh pityingly. “You think that’s bad? Last week it was negative one million, and the cellular structures in my eyeballs froze! And that was NOTHING compared to the winters of my childhood!”

I was raised by these people. I used to be one of these people. When I was a child, we literally had days off school because it was too cold, and they didn’t want kids to freeze to death waiting for the bus. (I also used to spend as much of the winter in the bathtub because I couldn’t get warm any other way, and I used to curl up in a corner of the bathroom to read because it was the smallest, warmest room of the house, and I used to stand outside near the dryer vent because it was slightly warmer than the rest of outside – but these things you forget, these things you gloss over, when you’re bragging about what a hardy Midwesterner you are.)

I also used to be able to drive in snow, but four years in New Mexico bred a pathological fear of driving in weather. When it snows in New Mexico, they chug out their one snow plow and try to clear the highways a little by dumping bloodred sand all over them. Then they send reporters to the far borders of the metropolitan areas to report breathlessly on all the white stuff! Falling from the sky! The reporters interview this one old guy who owns the Citron in Cedar Crest, and he says he’s never seen it snow quite like this before. Then seventeen semitrucks fly off the highways because they don’t know how to drive in snow. Then they close the highways.

In the four years I lived in New Mexico, they closed I-40 at least ten times, sometimes all the way to the Texas border. Good news: every time it snowed, I had days – sometimes weeks – off school. Bad news: I came dangerously close to getting stuck in Moriarty a few times, at which point I would turn into Joan Crawford and demand that R. drive through the blizzard to rescue me. On the days they predicted snow, I would stare at the Sandias with dread, wondering just how much the heavy clouds were dumping on my commute. (Another thing I miss about NM: being able to see what the weather is like twenty miles away.) My puny truck could barely make it up the mountain when the road was dry; in the snow, it was a nightmare. Worse, people in the Southwest generally do not know how to drive in winter weather. In the Midwest, everyone has one day of amnesia where they have to re-learn how to drive in the snow. In the Southwest, snow-amnesia is every day. And the stakes are much higher: here if you go off the road, you land in a pillow-soft cornfield. There, you land in an ice canyon of death.

Of course, I didn’t move back to the Midwest because I missed the gray skies and gray streets and long sunless stretch between November and March. I didn’t miss the sub-zero temperatures or freezing rain or bitter winter wind. I was totally fine without the suicidal deer so tired of the Wisconsin weather they’d rather fling themselves into oncoming traffic than face another day in this bleak winter.

I moved back because my family is here, and for that reason, it’s unquestionably home.

This will be my first Thanksgiving with family in five years, and for that I’ll gladly fight snow and traffic and rampaging deer. I’ll face cold and gray and miserable. I won’t flinch when it starts snowing. I won’t even complain… too much.

I’ll hit the road early, because waiting at the end of it is my family. And for that, I am truly thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

20 November 2007

For the Holidays, Do Something Good

Everyone says the holiday season is about giving. Unfortunately, too often that “giving” comes in the form of rampant consumerism and guilt-fueled trips to the mall to spend too much money on something that nobody needs just so you won’t look like a jerk. In her 1850 book “The First Christmas in New England,” Harriet Beecher Stowe had a character who complained that the true meaning of Christmas was being lost in a shopping spree. So… at least our helplessness in the face of holiday consumerism isn’t anything new.

For me, the only way to keep a hold of the “true meaning of Christmas” is to give – not socks and ugly ties, but time, money, caring – to those who really need help. In my ideal world, we’d sit around the tree on Christmas morning and share pictures and stories of the people (and animals!) we’ve helped in the names of our loved ones.

If you believe that the holiday season really is (or should be) about giving, please take a few minutes of your time to read the following letter from Posey Gruener, a friend of mine from college.

Dear friends,

My friend Ibby Caputo is fighting Leukemia. Three months ago, she got an infection that wouldn't go away. She went to the hospital, and she's been there ever since. She's been through chemo twice. She's 26 years old.

One week after Thanksgiving, Ibby will get a bone marrow transplant from an anonymous European donor. From now until the transplant date—November 29—I will be running a fundraiser to help pay for her recovery, and will match any donations, dollar-for-dollar, up to a total of $3,000.

If no one donates anything, I will (reluctantly) donate nothing. But if we work together, $1 will become $2, $35 will become $70, $80 will become $160—all the way up to $6,000. Together, we could raise enough to pay for the crucial first two months of recovery.

Please visit ibbycaputo.com to donate online or by check, use your credit or debit card to donate online, and email me at poseygruener@gmail.com letting me know you've done so. To learn more about Ibby and how your donation will be used, read on.

Thank you,


From Ibby:

"I'm back in the hospital again. Same floor, smaller room. I don't like it here. The last two rounds of chemo didn't put me into remission, so I'm back for something more heavy duty. It's going to hurt. Then comes the bone marrow transplant soon after. I signed the consent forms for that today.

The numbers are stacked against me. This strain of this disease is one that 60-year-old men usually get after having spent a lifetime working in a benzene factory. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey.

But. But! Somewhere in Europe there is a 39-year-old man who is my perfect donor match. We share 12 out of 12 chromosomes, only his aren't malfunctioning. On the day after Thanksgiving, I'm scheduled to start "conditioning" for the transplant. A week later, someone from this hospital is going to fly to Europe, pick up two bags of this man's stem cells, then travel back with them in an ice cooler underneath the seat of a commercial airline. The stem cell infusion date – my re-birthday - is set for November 29th.

The positive energy is stacked for me, though. This is why, the other night, my cousin and I wrote the cure rate percentages on a heart-shaped piece of paper, then took it into an alley and burned it. We decided those numbers are no longer applicable."

Posey again:

When all of this is over, the real fight begins.

After the transplant, the stem cells of this European man will work their way into Ibby's marrow and on to the rest of her. They will kill Ibby's leukemia cells. They will not (we hope) kill too many of Ibby's other cells. They will make themselves at home among Ibby's other organs. And, if all goes right, that will be it. She will be well.

If anything goes wrong—and that's likely—Ibby could develop infections, pneumonia, organ failure, or the awful, space-alien-sounding disease called Graft-Versus-Host.

To keep that from happening, Ibby has to lay low. Real low. For a year. She'll need to stay away from sources of stress or infection. She'll need to get lots of rest, and she'll need constant care. She'll need to pay for rent, and groceries, and a caretaker. And she won't be able to work.

This is where we come in. Because though we may not know how to treat Leukemia, though we may not even know Ibby, we've got what she needs most right now. By helping her pay for life's necessities, we can give her the ability to lay low, to avoid stress, to heal.

I'll be running a fundraising drive through Thanksgiving and up until November 29th—the day of Ibby's transplant—and I hope you'll find a minute or two to donate before then. I will match all donations dollar for dollar, up to $3,000. Together, we can provide for the crucial first two months of Ibby's recovery, and send her into the next phase knowing she'll be cared for.

To donate, just visit ibbycaputo.com, use your credit or debit card to donate online, and send me an email (poseygruener@gmail.com) letting me know you've done so. I'll be presenting my half of the pledge (which I hope will be a big half) on November 30th—the first day of Ibby's new existence as half-european, half-american, half-man, half-woman, and the first day (we hope, we hope) of the rest of her very long life.

Thank you,


Posey has nine days to raise $3,000. Her goal is to raise at least $315/day. She will match every dollar that we donate. Take a moment out of your day to check out Ibby’s website and help make a difference for someone who could really use a miracle this year.

And on Thursday, remember to give thanks for the things that truly matter: health, family, and friends like Posey Gruener.

19 November 2007

Anne Frank's Tree

On Wednesday, they’re going to cut down Anne Frank’s tree. The 160 year old chestnut, whose branches and leaves provided Anne Frank, her family, and the van Pels a tiny sliver of the outside world during the years they hid in the cramped Annex rooms, is diseased and can't be saved. For Anne, who believed that the beauty of nature could soften nearly every woe, the tree was a lifeline.

"Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favourite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy." – February 23, 1944

I first met Anne in the spring of 1997, when Louise Uphoff asked me if I’d consider directing The Diary of Anne Frank in my senior year of high school. That summer, I found myself in Amsterdam, where I visited the Anne Frank House Museum. I didn’t know much of the story yet, but still I felt as though I were in a church as I moved through the annex, trying to imagine the lives of the people who had lived there. Most of the people around us shared our hushed tones, our somber reverence.

Later, because what was to be our school’s auditorium was still a hole in the ground, we staged the play off campus, in a tiny mini-theater which was located, for some reason, inside a corporate facility. That the theater was so cramped, that we had to build our set in the day before we opened, that we were in high school in a little farm town and couldn’t wait to get out – everything conspired to make the production feel incredibly true. And even though it was just a bunch of kids, many of whom I’d known since pre-school, even though I’d sat through endless hours of rehearsals in the choir room with them and run lines with them and scolded them when they weren’t off book quickly enough or forgot the blocking or ad-libbed in historically incorrect ways (our Mrs. Van Daan, instead of worrying about the Green Police, worried about the cops) – even so, I cried every night.

In the spring of 2000, Heather Moore invited me to speak to her eighth graders about Anne Frank when they were reading the play in their English class. I showed them pictures of the Secret Annex, passed around the program and pictures of the cast from our play, and tried to help them imagine what it would feel like to be locked inside a small space for more than two years – with your family, who, because you are thirteen, are so annoying, but you can’t even speak to tell them to leave you alone.

Also, no TV, no video games, no internet. No contact with the outside world except the radio at night and the people who risk their lives to bring you food. It’s nearly impossible to imagine, today.

In the spring of 2006, I read The Diary of Anne Frank(the play version) with my own students, seventh and eighth graders. They would get so deeply engrossed in the reading that they would literally groan when the bell rang. This almost never happens, in middle school. “You finally found something that we actually like reading!” they’d say. “Who are you, and where are my real students?” I’d ask.

The Diary of Anne Frank led us to amazing discussions of tolerance and hatred, of compassion and hope against all odds. We talked about the Holocaust and Hitler and bullying in our own school. We talked about Christianity and Judaism in a homogenous Christian culture. In every class, after we read the last lines of the play, there was a long moment of silence. (Which, again, almost NEVER happens in middle school.) Anne Frank felt like someone we knew. She felt a friend. My students were uniformly angry at the unfairness of her death. “How could they do that to her?” they asked. “How could that happen??”

People always say that Anne Frank is important because she put a face on the tragedy of the Holocaust, and there is, of course, something in that. However, I would argue that she also put a face on humanity, in our infinite capacity to hope in the face of cruelty and unimaginable tribulation. A few weeks before the Franks were arrested by the Nazis, Anne wrote:

"It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. . . ."

On Wednesday, they’ll cut down the tree that helped Anne Frank keep hoping, but already the Anne Frank Museum has taken grafts from the tree with which to regrow it. Though no one will be able to replace the exact tree, a new one will grow in its place, stretching its leaves to the same sky under the same sun, and a new generation of visitors will look to its crown to feel what Anne felt, to reassure themselves that despite everything, people are really good at heart.

16 November 2007

Queen Geek, Princess Nerd, and the Duchess of Dork

Speaking of Wicked… today the Chicago Tribune declared Elphaba to be a “Geek Queen” (a nice assonant spondee – who’s Queen Geek now, Trib?). The article, You’ve come a long way, Geek Girl, rates various girls and women on their relative geekiness.

Questionability of rating women on any scale aside (even if it’s carefully subverting the paradigm by giving the most points to the geekiest girls, the ratings still mention relative hotness, though it’s hard to tell whether Tina Fey’s cuteness adds to or detracts from her overall Geek Quotient – anyway, this week’s Time Out Chicago did an unironic spread rating Keira Knightley’s hotness in a number of her movies, so the Trib gets some credit by comparison), I thought it was very interesting that the Tribune actually dared to define the word geek.

According to the Chicago Tribune, geekiness is characterized by “marked awkwardness plus narrow focus on an intellectual/creative pursuit.” (Sound familiar?)

Interesting, because The American Heritage Dictionary defines geek as:
• A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy.
• A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
Or, of course:
• A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.

The Tribune’s audacity to define geekiness amazed me merely because the exact nature of the subtle differences in connotation between geek, nerd, and dork has been an ongoing discussion among my friends for years. This particular question of semantics is as important to us as the reclamation of words like ‘queer’ in the GLBT community. Geek pride… or is it nerd pride?

Is there a difference between geekiness and nerdiness? Dictionary.com says that a nerd is “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd.” Doesn’t sound too different from “a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.” Right? The Tribune article seems to agree – at first. They seem to use “brainiac” and “art nerd” as synonyms for geek (or perhaps sub-sets of geekiness?). However, later in the “Geek or No Geek?” Quiz (ah, Chicago Tribune, you and your delightful frivolity!), Hillary Clinton is apparently NOT a geek because she “fails to exhibit the intense focus on a single intellectual/creative pursuit that we see in the classic geek” and apparently she’s also “a little too smooth” to be a geek. BUT she has “nerd qualities” of “diligence [and] intelligence.” So, diligent equals nerd, but single-minded diligence equals geek? Can’t Clinton be a politics geek? She does have intense focus on the single intellectual pursuit of becoming president, does she not? But no, she is a nerd, but not a geek. Similarly, Vanessa Hudgens in High School Musical is “more nerd than geek (see Hillary).” I’m sure they mean Hudgens’s character, not Hudgens herself, who lacks the “diligence and intelligence” to keep her naked self out of the public eye. Her character in HSM, however, is very good at math, but also good at singing and looking pretty. Is she, like Tina Fey, too hott to be Queen Geek? Or is her quest to win the adoration of Zac Efron not intensely focused enough to be considered geekiness?

Also “(see Hillary)”? Are we to understand that there is little difference between Vanessa Hudgens and Senator Clinton? And if so, should someone be offended?

Furthermore, how is it that Lisa Simpson scores a five on the “Geek-o-meter,” but Hermione Granger only scores a three? Seriously? Lisa scores Geek Queen status because she is “always the smartest person in the room” – how is Hermione any different? Because she’s a “goody-goody” and “know-it-all”? Does goody-goodyness preclude geekiness? Does true geekiness require breaking some rules? Do you have to be a little bad to be a geek? Hermione will go there. She is definitely bad enough to be a geek. She could take Lisa Simpson any day, and not just because Lisa can’t seem to move beyond the second grade. Maybe, like Tina Fey, she’s just too pretty to be a geek.

And where do the dorks fit in? Are they just the truly hopeless cases, the ones still wearing sweatpants to school past fifth grade, whose jeans never quite cover the tops of their socks, who breath through their mouths and use nasal sprays in plain sight? Will their time ever come?

Most importantly, which label should we be claiming for ourselves? Will we stand by Hillary Clinton and Vanessa Hudgens and proclaim our intelligence but lack of truly obsessive focus by calling ourselves Nerds? Ally ourselves with Elphaba and Lisa Simpson – intelligent, driven, and ugly?

Or maybe we should just bite the heads off chickens and answer the question for good. You go first, though. I’m too pretty.

15 November 2007

The Wonderful Witches of Oz

Last night was Chicago’s 1000th performance of Wicked, the musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Yesterday was also the date of the public sale for a new block of tickets from January 27 – April 27, 2008. Despite the fact that it has what may be the WORST advertising slogan ever (“The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait to see WICKED!” What the hell does that even mean?), Wicked is absolutely worth the (rather hefty) ticket price.

I was lucky enough to see the 888th performance (or so, it was back in August) of this show, and it was amazing. I looooooooooved it. I have been a musical theatre nerd ever since I saw the local high school’s production of My Fair Lady and thought to myself, I want to do that. How do I do that? The next Monday, I dropped a study hall and signed up for choir. I was twelve. My musical theatre nerd-dom spans a decade and a half, and involves performances in such high school standards as Little Shop of Horrors, Anything Goes, The Music Man etc etc. I even went to music camp and majored in musical theatre. Nerdy but true.

I’ve seen a ton of shows – in London, in New York, Toronto… um, Albuquerque – and Wicked was the best. The best. The musical is simpler and less political than the book, but I actually think I liked it better (I’m a sucker for a happy ending).

Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz, characters we all know from The Wizard of Oz: the Good Witch of the North, Glinda; the Wicked Witch of the East (in the movie, the one underneath the house); and of course, the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba. It challenges the assumptions you’ve held about the mean witch and her flying monkeys; it calls into question labels and the simple dichotomy of good and evil.

What’s most wonderful about Wicked is that it is a story about two girls, and how their unlikely friendship changes each of them. “So much of me is made of what I learned from you… and now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine, by being my friend.” How many Broadway musicals are about friendship between girls? There are musicals about war (Les Mis, Miss Saigon), orphans (Annie, Once on This Island), buddies (The Producers), love (every musical ever), but girls? BFFs? I can’t think of any.

Of course, there’s a love story in Wicked, and part of the appeal is the clever re-telling of a familiar and beloved story (though I must say that I personally do not like The Wizard of Oz and never have – but I still love Wicked), primarily this is a story about two strong women and the friendship that binds them as they each try to follow their own paths and do what they believe is right. It’s about growing up, about finding your way in the world, about shifting beliefs and listening to your own voice when the rest of the world is telling you something else. It’s about destiny and truth and labels. It’s about popular girls and nerd girls. It’s about sisters and magic, power and politics and flying monkeys. It’s about BFFs.

You can never have too many stories about BFFs.

If you have the chance to see this show, DO. Stephen Schwartz’s music is complex and beautiful. He pays subtle tribute to the movie by using the iconic first seven notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as one of the musical’s dominant themes, though he disguises them by changing the rhythm. The costumes are strange and wonderful; the puppetry is awesome. And the BFF story might just make you cry.

You can’t deny it: the longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait to see Wicked. Let’s hope it’s not too long.

14 November 2007

Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac

I picked up Gabrielle Zevin’s book Elsewhere over the summer on a day when I was feeling vaguely sorry for myself and conveniently happened to end up at a bookstore in the Loop. I remember thinking that the book seemed familiar, and I also remember that there was this very intense little kid staring at me as I browsed in the YA section, which made me feel both uncomfortably tall and awkwardly out of place, like I was somehow impinging on the territory of The Little. So I grabbed the book and hurried off to the checkout, where nobody made me feel anything but seven bucks poorer.

It started to rain as I walked from the train to my apartment, and I ducked into my favorite café to wait it out. After I’d settled in with a latte and Elsewhere, it actually started to hail outside, but by then I didn’t care about the outside world. I was hooked.

Elsewhere invites comparison to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, as both are told from the perspective of dead teenaged girls. However, while the narrator ofThe Lovely Bones focuses her narrative on what’s happening in the world she left behind, Elsewhere’s protagonist, Liz, must learn to live in a new world. In Elsewhere, you keep the identity you had on Earth and get a second act, of sorts, in which you pick an avocation and live exactly the number of years you did on Earth, only backward. Liz must come to terms with the fact that not only did she only get fifteen years on Earth, but also she’ll never get any older in Elsewhere – in fact, she starts getting younger the moment she arrives. It’s the coming-of-age tale of a person who will never get to come of age.

Elsewhere has an unusual tone, a distance in the narrative, that evokes modern fairy tales like St. Exupery’s The Little Prince and Coelho’s The Alchemist. With its intriguing premise and simple language, it is a charming little book. Major bonus points for a prologue told by a pug and a protagonist who can speak Canine.

“Hey girl,” Liz says to the dog, “you don’t have to drink from there.”
The dog looks up at her. After a moment, the dog cocks her head curiously and speaks. “Isn’t that what it’s for?” she asks. “Why else would they fill a low basin thingy with water? You can even get fresh water by pressing this little handle, right?” The dog demonstrates, flushing the toilet with her left paw.
“No,” says Liz gently, “it’s actually a toilet.”

Zevin’s second YA book, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, like Elsewhere, is told in three parts. And, like Liz, Naomi Porter loses her footing, and must decide what she wants her life to be. After she falls down the steps
of her high school a few weeks before her junior year, Naomi experiences a rare form of amnesia that blocks the last four years. She doesn’t remember that her parents are divorced. She doesn’t remember her boyfriend, her best friend, or why she liked yearbook. After the accident, she must rediscover her own life, and decide whether to follow the path she’s laid out for herself, or to forge a new one.

Of course, this premise is compelling. If you could, would you choose the life you have? Would you be the person you are? This form of amnesia may not even exist in real life, but the questions it poses makes it rich territory for novelists and soap opera writers.

Memoirs is told in three parts: I was, I am, and I will. I must confess that some of this novel’s appeal – for me, at least – lies in the third part, I will, which was just as satisfying to my girlish teenage heart as the moment when Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe finally smooch. For this reason alone, I know that if Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac had been around when I was a teenager, I would have returned to it again and again to restore my (girlish teenage) faith in the world.

I didn’t trip or all – tripping and falling are accidents.
I dove – diving is intentional. Idiotic, yes, but also intentional.
Diving is a leap of faith plus gravity.
I had been throwing myself toward something.
Maybe away from something else….

10 November 2007

The Necessity of Myth

Recently, I’ve been thinking about retroactive inevitability and the making of myth. Specifically, about the way that success engenders certainty in the people who know you, who tell you that they always knew you would be successful – like on E! True Hollywood Story (I don’t own a TV, but I love that show), whenever the crew goes back to Gutentucky, Arkansas to interview the star’s childhood family and friends, someone ALWAYS says, “I just knew he would be famous!” There seems to be a need to claim foresight, whether this is just a way to be a part of the narrative of fame, a way to cash in on a tiny piece of the drama, or whether it’s a necessary ingredient in star-making (can you be a global sensation if everyone at home says, “Gosh, we NEVER saw that coming!” and “I always knew she would end up living in a trailer with three babies by three daddies… guess I was wrong!”) I’m not sure.

Are some people truly destined to be famous? If everyone in your elementary school just knows that you’ll grow up to be wildly successful, does that mean you will? Or do people not just know until after the fact, until you are?

What about the people we just know about who end up living perfectly average lives? Is there a cut-off, after which your family and friends stop telling you that you’re so funny or have such a pretty voice or such a lovely face that they just know you’ll be famous? Thirty? Forty? After your first kid? Your first divorce? What about the people who achieve national attention after that cut-off point? Frank McCourt, for example, was a teacher for thirty years and didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until he was 66 years old. How does he fit into the structure of myth and predestination?

Geek Buffet had a post yesterday about the death of Barbara West Dainton, the second-to-last survivor of the Titanic.

The fact that several of them - among them the last two survivors - had no memories of it other than what they learned from family members didn’t make a difference. It was just their having been on the ship, having been in its presence - in a way, not to be blasphemous, the survivors seemed often to be treated as sacred relics; tangible, earthly links to a fantastic, quasi-mythical object.

Titanic has become myth in our collective memory, and it may be difficult to imagine why someone like Dainton would have wanted to separate herself from the tragedy. Particularly now, when global fame is only a clever youtube video away, it’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t want to cash in on the glamour and fantasy of the Titanic.

As a culture, do we need to construct myth? Without a pantheon of deities to people our myths, must we substitute the wealthy and famous? Do we need to believe that these people are somehow different from us, mythical, pre-destined – or are they?

09 November 2007

A Conversation with Jennifer Rothschild

This week at Bittersweet, I talk with Jennifer Rothschild, who -- in addition to being a children's librarian -- is a fellow Grinnellian, originally from Wisconsin, and a total book nerd. I actually thought we might be the same person, until I discovered her deep dark secret...

Jennie, this is your first year (right?) doing NaNoWriMo, and you are thoroughly kicking my ass. What's that about? Seriously, how's it going?

Actually, this is my second year. I did it in 2005 with this piece that is still only 22,000 words. I was (am) trying to explore the concept of "home" in a globalized world when you tend to move every year until your late twenties. It's close to my heart, but it needs a lot of work and I'm a bit stuck on it.

This year is going pretty well. (Except school got in the way this week, so I have to write hard to catch up!) It's a funnier, lighter work that I'm really enjoying. Plus, it's about high school choir, so they sing a lot, which means I quote a lot of lyrics, which is a fast way to pad your word count.

The working/writing/school thing is odd. I use NaNo as an award-- if you write two paragraphs of this paper, you can write for fifteen minutes for NaNo! Which, honestly, I think is one of the reasons school got in the way this week. Oops.

You already contribute to about twelve different blogs. How is writing a novel different?

Well, I rarely write a 1,667 word blog post. Let alone a 1,667 word post every single day of a month. Let alone all more or less on the same topic!

Most of blogs I write or contribute to are very topic-specific (with the exception of Geek Buffet) so, in a way, that's easier. I just have to write however much I feel like about topic X. Plus, with the variety of blogs that I work on, I don't have to stay focused on one little thing. Also, when blogging, I tend to be reacting to something (This book rocked, here's why. This soap smells bad, don't buy it.) When novel-ing, I'm still reacting, but in a different way. My characters aren't me, so I have to think through how they would react, plus I'm also the one responsible for coming up with what I'm reacting to. I

It's definitely a different mind-space, but also a different process. I tend to analyze word-choice and phrasing and motivation less when blogging than when novel-ing. Blogging is much more off-the-cuff. I don't even remember to run spell check half the time, let alone double check to see if I made any sense. Even in the writing style of NaNoWriMo, where it's essentially literary diarrhea, I still think through it more.

I also do more research. I have a playlist on my computer (which I've burned to CD for my car) that is all the songs I think this choir is going to sing. So, I'll be in the car, hearing the tricky parts, the high notes, what solos are where and think about how my characters are going to react to this music and how they're going to make this music. Plus, it's really fun writing soprano smack-downs over various solos. Sopranos are such bitches.

They are! They're worse than violinists, because the violins can be divas, but at least they can read music. Were you an alto? Do you still sing, or is choir -- like eating too many pixie stix and driving around "just because" -- one of those things that you stop doing after school?

How many sopranos does it take to screw in a light bulb? Only one. She just stands there and the whole world revolves around her. The same thing works for first violinists.

That said, I sang alto for a few semesters in my women's choir in high school, but, I am totally a soprano. A first soprano, which is the bitchiest, diva-est type of soprano you can be.

I'm not singing in a choir right now, because of my work/school schedule, but I really miss it. One of the things I'm looking forward to when I graduate is joining a choir. I saw a sign this weekend for a community chorus that meets a few blocks from my house. I was sad for the rest of the day because I have to work the night it meets. I did get to sing one season with the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor. When the whole choir started warming up during that first rehearsal, the joy of singing in a large group again was overwhelming. I really miss it.

You were a soprano!? We can't be friends. No, I had the same experience when I sang the Messiah with a Lutheran church choir in New Mexico. The director was like, okay, “Many mumbling mice…” and I was like, OH MY GOD, I MISSED THIS!

Anyway….you were a History/Chinese Studies major at Grinnell, and now you're a librarian. Explain.

I worked at the library all through college--even the summers and really enjoyed my work there, especially in the archives. I knew when I graduated that I wanted to stay in the library field. Librarianship is great, because they need people from all academic backgrounds and weird things become helpful in unexpected ways.

Did you ever consider becoming an editor? I happen to know that you have a talent for it.

I would love to become an editor and it's a career I've thought about on several occasions. If I did, I'd like to work in middle grade or young adult fiction. Sadly, most of the jobs in that fields are in New York, and me (and school) are in DC, but I haven't ruled it out. If I could find some way to work from home in DC, that would be awesome. I'd even take the train up to NYC once a week or something. I would gladly read your slush and write your jacket copy and call/email my thoughts in.

Just mine, or everyone's?

Definitely yours, but if I could get paying gig doing it full time, I'd be happy. Or, if you started writing at a totally furious pace to occupy me full time. With salary. :)

Unfortunately, I write very slowly, as evidenced by my crappy Nano wordcount. Now, in fifty words or less, tell us every single detail of your recent trip to China.

Ha! It was amazing and wonderful. China's really changed a lot in the 7 years since I was last there. It was especially interesting to see it through Dan's eyes, as he's never been there and hasn't really studied the history, language and culture like I have.

Your blog Biblio File is all about books. We know that you're an extreme reader (X-treme Reading! should be a sport), but are you a book hoarder? Are you still hanging on to copies of Kristy's Great Idea, because you just can't bear to get rid of them?

I am a total book hoarder. Last time I got rid of a bunch of books, I later found out that a series of them were out of print and going for hundreds of dollars on Ebay! I've been sloooooooooooowly recollecting them.

But, I'm starting to get review copies of things, and I really don't have the space, so I'm carefully weeding again. But it's always a really hard decision. This time, I'm just putting my weeds up on BookMooch.com, so I know they're going to someone who wants them and then I can get more books.

Getting rid of books is terribly painful.

What was your favorite book in 1992? How about 1995?

1992? I think Remember Me by Christopher Pike
1995? On the Road by Jack Keroauc. Which is interesting, because 1995 is when I first read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which is one of my favorite books NOW.

You were reading Christopher Pike, whose novels were quite, um, mature, at 12. What are your feelings about the recent trend in YA literature toward subjects previously considered taboo, from teen swearing to rape to bjs? I recently saw criticism of John Green's books for portraying the teenage characters doing naughty things (smoking, drinking, awkward sex) without suffering any grave consequences, thereby sending the message to teens that they can do bad things all they want. Do you agree or disagree with this criticism?

I actually started reading Christopher Pike in about fifth grade. I am a big fan of YA lit including salty language and mature themes like sex and drugs. Books need to reflect reality and the themes I see in books today are all things I was dealing with as a teen, which was um, a while ago. And even then we did some stupid things and didn't always have to suffer consequences. Sometimes, adults need to get over that not all undesirable behaviors have consequences. Yes, you can get an STD if you give someone an unprotected blow job, but it's not a guarantee. Plenty of girls go down on guys all the time without damage to their reputations, emotional well being, or health.

Luckily, I was able to (usually) make some smart decisions and was blessed with circumstance, so I didn't have to experience a lot of these issues first hand, but the kids around me were. I would have felt very cheated by a literature that pretended reality didn't exist, to the point where I might have stopped reading contemporary American fiction all together.

But, I mean, reading all these mature themes never made me want to inject my half brother with an air bubble to kill him. [Reference to Pike’s book Remember Me.] If anything, it made me more responsible. After reading lots of books with teen drinking, did I start drinking heavily? No, I stayed sober to drive my drunk friends home.

I also want to point out that people discussing YA lit tend to forget that there is a lot of stuff out there that still appeals and doesn't deal with these issues. Not all books are for all readers, not all readers are for all books. And, to quote Margaret A. Edwards, the grandmother of YA librarianship, "One swallow doesn't make a summer and one book will neither destroy nor save a reader."

What are the top three books you're always pushing on people?

Only 3? And personally, or professionally? Personally,

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging (and the subsequent sequels) by Louise Rennison
Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City (and sequels) by Kirsten Miller

Professionally, the following three books are all on the reading list (not all the same grade) and tend to be sure-fire hits with the kids:

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Magic Tree House (series) by Mary Pope Osborne (time travel and secretly educational!)

Do you remember the first time you and I met? Because I do.

April (?), 1998-- Admitted students weekend, in the Forum. I was excited by your chalice necklace.

That’s right! Sorry if I was weird to you. My dog bit me on the boob the night before we left for Grinnell... it was a rough time for me. So much of my adolescence can be summed up by the words "awkward and embarassing."

I don't recall the conversation as being any more weird or awkward than any other "hi! we just met but we maybe might go to college together" conversation that I had that weekend.

That’s a relief. And… we did! Neat. Okay, last question: what question did I forget to ask you, and what's the answer?

Hmmmm.... how about... what are your current musical obsessions? To which the answer would be the Putumayo Lounge series of CDs and Six Degrees compilations. I just got "Boys and Girls" by Ingrid Michaelson and "The Reminder" by Feist. I've been listenng to them nonstop. Also the song "St. Peter's Bones" by Girlyman, and as the weather turns colder, I always turn back to "Asleep" by the Smiths.

Awesome. Thanks, Jen!

Check out Jennie's many blogs: Biblio File, her book blog; Puffery, the beauty blog; and Geek Buffet, the nerd blog.

08 November 2007

Bad Touch

From my mother:

"A little kid was petting Zeke while we were waiting at the vet and Zeke was loving it. The kid was petting all of his tumors and then said to his dad, wickedly, "I petted his peeper!" It was darling and, of course, the elderly gent didn't mind!"

06 November 2007

NaBloPoMo? I mean... really?

Not only is November National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it’s also National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). Apparently.

Unsurprisingly, the person who started NaBloPoMo was inspired by Nanowrimo, and “thought there should be a blogging counterpoint,” according to wisegeek.com. Should there be? Should there really?

Insofar as there should be a 5K walk for every 10K run, perhaps. Just as there should be, for every kegstand, a dude standing in the corner sipping his Old Style.

But really? National Novel Writing Month has kicked my ass three years running. Even when I met the 50,000 word goal, Nano still kicked my ass, because it is hard. Writing 1,667 words a day to further some narrative – even if they’re stupid words, even if it’s a crappy narrative – is so hard. National Blog Posting Month says that all you have to do to “win” is post a blog entry every single day for a month. No length requirement. And while I’m sure you’d really have to push yourself to write a few sentences about your morning muffin and your fascinating yoga class (even on Sundays! they stress), the challenge just doesn’t compare, regardless of wisegeek.com’s claim that NaBloPoMo is actually *harder* than Nanowrimo, because you have to post something Every. Single. Day.

Ooooh, NaBloPoMo. A new picture of the kitty every single day? A new snarky post about the next NaSoAndSo every single day? That’s nearly impossible!

What’s fun about National Novel Writing Month is that it’s completely absurd. Write a 50,000 word novel in a month? Insanity! You go into Nano with the understanding that, even if you do manage to get 50,000 words in a month, it’s not going be a masterpiece. Quality isn’t the point. Nobody’s ever going to read your Nano novel. The point is to do it, to push yourself beyond your limits, beyond what feels comfortable, and achieve something you didn’t think you could do. Doing Nanowrimo is like running a marathon. You don’t have to run in perfect form, you don’t have to come in first or second or even in the top hundred. All you have to do is finish. The fun of Nanowrimo – like the fun of running a marathon (if there IS any; I certainly can’t imagine) – is looking to the people around you when you begin to lose heart, and knowing that there are 90,000 other people out there doing it with you, 90,000 other people putting on another pot of coffee, working their way through a tangled plot line, throwing in another ninja to spice things up. Part of the fun of Nano is complaining, and procrastinating in forums, and commiserating with other Wrimos about how hard it is.

NaBloPoMo? Not hard. So what’s the point? Why have a challenge that doesn’t challenge you? Why not sign up for National Brush Your Teeth Every Day month? National Get Dressed Every Day month? (“It might actually be harder than Nanowrimo, because you have to put clothes on your body Every. Single. Day!”)

There are people in this world who hate Nanowrimo with a deep, burning passion. These people believe that Nano “trivializes” writing and novels and writing novels. I don’t agree; I don’t think that Nanowrimo trivializes writing novels any more than kids playing T-ball trivializes the World Series. I don’t think that this NaBloPoMo hurts Nanowrimo any more than The Flying Spaghetti Monster hurts God. I mean, shit, you can make November whatever month you want it to be. I’ve attached at least three acronyms to it in the last week alone. Write 50,000 words, stop spending money at Starbucks, brush your teeth every single day. If you want to post pictures of the kitty every single day – even Sundays! – for the entire month, great! Do that! But for heaven’s sake, PoMoers, set the bar a little higher! Challenge yourself! Stretch! Set a goal you don’t know you can reach, and then work for it.

Or, you know, set yourself a lame goal. Feel free. Just don’t try to fancy it up with an acronym.

05 November 2007

More Thoughts on No Child Left Behind

(Previous article on NCLB here)

I started writing this as a response to Dave's comment; I intended to post it in the comments section. Once it surpassed two pages, I figured I may as well post it as a full blog entry.

Disclaimer: My understanding of NCLB and its ramifications comes from working in public schools in two different states, in various roles, since 2002. Every state and every district is different, but I do believe that there are many schools across the country that are similarly affected. Feel free to agree or disagree with me. I'm just reporting what I saw and what I lived through in the last few years.

Comment from nathand:

point of concern-

it is up to each state to design the test that will be used for NCLB, not the federal government. NCLB only says there should be a test, and that there should be improvement.

Also, testing once a year (which NCLB mandates) is not my definition of "testing the children non-stop".

But if you need to vent, go bonkers. Teaching *is* stressful.

It is up to each state to design the test, and some of them are better than others. New Mexico’s state test was actually fairly good, as standardized tests go. However, it took over a week to administer, in which we lost almost all instructional time. So, there’s one week gone.

Under NCLB, a school is determined to be “failing” if it fails to meet the targeted proficiency percentages (Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP) in reading and math in any subgroup. Subgroups include categories such as race, class, grade level, and special education, but are only counted against a school if they have a certain number of students (in NM, it was 20). In the school where I taught, we had fairly large subgroups of race and class (something like 70% of the school was on free or reduced hot lunch), so the subgroups that were counted against us were the grades (7th and 8th), the races (Caucasian and Hispanic; we didn’t have any other subgroup large enough to count), the economic groups (free and reduced hot lunch), and the special ed group, which was further divided into the ELL group. Each of those subgroups was then counted separately for reading and math, thereby making fourteen subgroups total (and I might be forgetting something). Our school had never made the targeted proficiency percentage in the subgroup of Special Ed Math, one out of the fourteen subgroups, even though every other subgroup, as well as the school as a whole, had achieved its targeted proficiency; because one subgroup of twenty-four students had failed, the school failed.

The only schools in our district that ever DID make AYP were those that had fewer than twenty kids in their special ed subgroups, keeping the special ed scores from counting against them.

If you don’t make AYP, your school goes through a series of increasingly severe consequences, ending in school restructuring (everyone at the school is fired and has to reapply for their jobs). There’s a flow chart here that outlines the process. In my experience, once you get to year two or three of School Improvement, the school’s entire focus is on simply passing the test. At this point, as a teacher, I was told by one principal to “target the kids who were going to fail us” and basically ignore the rest.

I can’t even exaggerate how psychotic the schools are about making AYP. My understanding (and this is from a teacher’s perspective, the second-to-bottom on the food chain) is that the federal government is putting a great deal of pressure on the state government, who in turn pressures the districts, who in turn pressure the principals, who in turn pressure the teachers, and we pressure the kids, which is why kids are getting ulcers in fourth grade from the stress of it all.

Additionally, because the state tests (in NM, but I know a lot of states are similar) are given in late winter/early spring, but the results don’t come back until the next fall, the data has such a slow turnaround that it doesn’t do much for strategic “curriculum” (aka teaching to the test) planning. THEREFORE, most districts elect to give another set of standardized tests – “short cycle tests” – to chart growth and better predict potential failure or success in the next round of State NCLB tests. The test our district used, a nationally used, computer-based test not dissimilar to the GREs in its adjusted difficulty according to each previous answer, came in three parts, a reading, math, and language usage test. Each test was taken on the computer, and each test took at least one class period to complete, though the reading and math very commonly took two or more. This test is given three times a year, in August/September, January, and April. Even if you assume the minimum time for each test, at 45 minutes per each of three tests, three times a year, you end up with almost seven full hours of testing, in addition to the week of state tests. In other words, with nine full class periods devoted to the short cycle test, PLUS the twenty full class periods devoted to the yearly state test, assuming a forty five minute class period, each child is losing almost six weeks’ worth of instructional time.

Moreover, in “failing” schools, teachers are often encouraged to give students STAR reading and math tests once a quarter, which take up yet another class period with very little useful data yield. Personally, I smilingly refused to give my students STAR tests, on the grounds that I could learn more about their reading levels by READING WITH THEM for those four class periods. But the other English teachers in my school did give those tests, increasing their students’ test-taking time to 33 class periods devoted to testing, and if the math teachers did the STAR math tests, it’s 37 class periods solely devoted to testing. Thirty seven class periods… seven and a half weeks of school.

In my opinion, that certainly qualifies as “testing the children non-stop.”

You might argue that NCLB isn’t inherently evil, because it only mandates a yearly test, and the states are the ones who drive the length and breadth of that test, but I can’t see how you can possibly separate NCLB from the domino effect of testing and stress it inspires in schools all over the country. By 2014, NCLB says that every school should (and every subgroup within a school) should be at 100% grade-level proficiency in reading and math, which nearly everyone agrees is statistically impossible. As the percentage levels for targeted proficiency rise, more and more schools will be affected, until – unless NCLB is changed or repealed – even the wealthy and high performing public schools will be scrambling to make AYP, a nearly impossible task when the special ed and ELL subgroups are counted against a school. According to NCLB, the special ed subgroup must have the same percentage of students performing at grade level as the school as a whole is held to (and that percentage goes up each year), but if you can perform at grade level, you’re not special ed. Because of this requirement, I have seen schools (not necessarily the ones where I taught) try to keep students in the special ed program to bolster scores, and I have also seen schools try to keep students out of the special ed program or out of the school in order to keep the subgroup under the critical mass number where it counts against the school. As I said before, the only schools in our district that ever made AYP (while I was looking at the data, at least) were the ones whose special ed subgroups weren’t big enough to count against them.

This system is profoundly sad, because it sets up an Us v. Them attitude in schools, where the core teachers are blaming the special ed teachers and the “regular” students are blaming the special ed students for bringing the school down. And I will tell you that when your school is in School Improvement Year 3 or 4, it is extremely difficult not to fall into this trap. After all, the administration and the state department all seem to be blaming YOU, the teacher, for the school’s failure; why not pass the blame on to the teachers of the subgroups who ruined it for everyone? Then the science teachers blame the math teachers and the math teachers blame the rest of the staff for not supporting the math curriculum; ditto for the reading teachers; the teachers blame the parents and the parents blame the teachers; the eighth grade teachers blame the seventh grade teachers and the seventh grade teachers blame the elementary teachers, etc etc. There is so much pressure to make AYP and if you don’t shape up your job’s on the line and everyone’s job is on the line and it’s all someone’s fault, just not yours.

How can you possibly have a healthy and constructive educational environment when everyone’s blaming everyone else for the school’s repeated failures? How can you possibly teach anything but the test when your job is on the line and everyone in your community will hate you if you don’t get enough of these kids to pass the test?

And what the hell are we doing to our children?

Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, or: When Did I Become Such a Weiner?

Over the weekend, I accidentally started looking at Chicago Dog Rescue websites, and within minutes I was getting weepy. Believe me, I did NOT used to be the kind of person who got misty over… well, anything. I didn’t cry at a single movie between 1988 (when Littlefoot’s mother fell in the crevasse in The Land Before Time) and 1997 (when Laertes found out that his sister was dead in Branagh’s Hamlet). In fact, I used to make fun of the criers. Mary Anne Spier, in my opinion, was a real pain in the ass. I used to be tough. I used to be impenetrable. Now I’m a real weiner.

Now, all it takes is a list of “Ten Favors a Dog Asks of Man” on a dog rescue site to start me sniffling. (“Before you scold me when working with me, consider: perhaps I am uncomfortable from digesting my last meal; perhaps I was exposed to the sun for too long; or perhaps I have a worn-out heart.”) (A worn out heart!!)

This morning, it was: this article about stolen puppies that got me. “The burglar is believed to have filled one of the store's plastic garbage cans with golden retrievers, boxers, beagles and huskies, plus a Shih Tzu, a puggle and a Pekingese before escaping out the back door.” Puppies in a garbage can? Isn’t that awful? I know it makes me sound like SUCH a girl, but seriously, those poor puppies! The only thing puppies want is kisses and food and a toy to chew on, and these guys get dumped in a garbage can and thrown in a truck. It breaks my heart.

Why am I such a crybaby about dogs right now? Maybe it’s because my own dog, who is the best dog I’ve ever, ever had, is currently living with my mother two hours away, and I feel like a real asshole about it. Also, I miss him. He’s in the best possible place a dog could live, with a woman who slept on the floor with our dying golden retriever when she was too weak to get up on the bed anymore, but I still feel bad that he’s not with me. After all, I made him a promise when he first came into my life, after nearly eight years of bouncing from house to house, that he was in our family now, and that we’d take care of him for the rest of his life. He’s living with my mom, so I’m not technically breaking that promise, but….

Maybe it also has something to do with all the rescue dogs I’ve met in the last few months. We spent a good bit of time with the Greyhounds Only people this summer, and we met some amazing dogs, and learned about some wretched racing conditions (for example, a greyhound racing facility in Florida was recently busted when random drug testing found levels of COCAINE in the dogs’ systems. When they investigated the track, they found dead dogs stuffed in freezers). Recently, we met some New Leash On Life dogs, and I fell in love with Bea, the pumpkin headed pit bull.

According to the Anti-Cruelty Society, between 19,000 and 20,000 dogs were euthanized in Chicago last year alone. It’s better than the 40,000 put down in 1990, or the 200,000 in 1970, but it’s still SO MANY dogs. Like global warming and the persistence of American Idol, it’s one of those problems that’s so big it’s hard to know where to start trying to help.

N. and I keep a “dog jar” where we’re throwing all our spare change; at the end of the year we’ll donate it to a dog rescue organization or two. Meanwhile, I’m looking into volunteering with one of the dog rescue groups in town.

And yesterday, N. and I decided that though we can’t rescue any dogs for a while, we can do good on a much smaller level. So now we have new members of our household: two little mouse sisters. As the kid at the pet store said, “You’re rescuing them from being snake food!” Sometimes, the smallest act of charity makes a difference.

03 November 2007

The System is Not Okay

At 27, I am working in a non-educational setting for the first time in my adult life. The experience has been nothing if not illuminating. As is often the case, my most shocking revelations have been the most simple.

Primarily, this: that the “real world” does not spend much time thinking about public education in this country, beyond the most basic points of impact on personal life. Outside the education sphere, most people only think about school personally and anecdotally (eg. My kid’s having trouble in math class, that teacher doesn’t assign enough homework, I always hated English class); most people do not think about the schools on a systemic or national level.

Okay, obvious, right? I mean, who thinks about the police force on a systemic level, other than those who work within its sphere? Who thinks about nursing on a national level, other than nurses? It’s rather unsophisticated to assume that people who aren’t me care about the same things I do. Contrary to long-standing belief, recent developments seem to indicate that Molly Backes is not, in fact, the axis around which the world spins.

However, after four years in the trenches of No Child Left Behind warfare, it seems incredible to me that the rest of the country doesn’t realize what trouble we’re in – and more importantly, doesn’t seem to care. How can you not care? The chidren we educate today determine the world we live in tomorrow. This is not an abstract concept: our children are our future. And we are royally screwing ourselves.

As anyone who’s ever met me knows, I can’t talk about teaching without getting a little riled up. Having (temporarily?) escaped the trenches, I find myself an unhappy ambassador to a disinterested world. The most common question I get is, “Why aren’t you teaching this year? You’d be making a lot more money.” At which I must restrain myself from screaming: THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE FUCKED! THE SYSTEM IS FUCKED! IT’S A GODDAMN NATIONAL DISASTER!!

Instead, I usually say, “I heard myself bragging, last spring, about how good I’d gotten at teaching to the test.”

At this cue, any good education nerd would blanch. Any good education veteran would nod knowingly. Anyone who’s been in the trenches of low-income “failing” schools would shake her head sympathetically.

In the real world, people don’t react. They don’t see the problem inherent in the statement. They wait for me to finish my explanation. At best, they say, “Oh, is that like, that No Child Left Behind thing?”

Yes yes yes, it’s like that No Child Left Behind thing! Take five minutes to think critically about what’s happening here. We’re testing the children non-stop, because George Bush wants to hold them accountable for their learning. The government tells us we need to test the children to get more data about their progress in order to better tailor the curriculum to their educational needs. Which means, “tailor the curriculum to what’s on the test.”

A standardized test does not ask the questions that are most important to know. It asks the questions that are more easily captured in a multiple-choice answer. A standardized test says that your ability to choose which word is the antecedent in a sentence is a measure of your ability as a writer. A standardized test says that your ability to fill in the correct bubble stands testament to your intellectual depth and understanding. A standardized test conflates vocabulary and trivia with knowledge and understanding, and that’s wrong.

Teachers must teach to the test or lose their jobs. When the school’s scores come back low in reading, the entire staff cranes its accusing neck toward you. The principal asks you, “Why aren’t you giving your students what they need?” The parents tell you, “I’m taking my student to Sylvan, because no one in this school is teaching him to read!” The district sends you to workshops where morbidly cheerful presenters give you photocopies of every single power point slide in their lecture, and tell you “Don’t teach harder, teach smarter!” until you realize that the only way to teach smarter is teach to the bubble. Teach to the number two pencil grinding away at the next question. Teach to the vocabulary list that says “syllogism” is a word every third grader should know.

Nobody listens to you when you say, “What if we stopped testing them every two weeks, and gave them an extra forty minutes of instruction?” or “Why are we holding special ed kids accountable for performing at grade level? If they could perform at grade level, they wouldn’t be special ed.” or “Weighing yourself every day doesn’t make you skinnier.” or “The children are having panic attacks. We are hurting the children.”

Outside the sphere of education, what the world knows of testing is this: Teachers get summers off, and the children of this country are stupid. Therefore, we should hold them accountable and stop throwing good tax money down the drain by paying our lazy ass teachers to do nothing.

What the world doesn’t know of testing is this: The mania for standardized testing means that children (the children of “failing” schools, the children of inner-city and rural poverty-level school, the poor kids and the non-white kids) are not being taught, they are being trained to perform on tests. Teaching to the test means teaching students how to write concise short answers (my old school had a formula for it: Restate question, Answer, Cite evidence, Expand on answer: RACE), but not teaching them to write paragraphs and essays, not teaching them to write thesis statements and supporting evidence, not teaching them to write research papers. Standardized tests cannot evaluate you on your research-writing abilities; they can only ask you multiple choice questions about some arbitrarily established “research process.” Teaching to the test means spending the year preparing the students to take the test, and not preparing them to perform at the next grade level. In my first years of teaching, when my classroom was still very writing-intensive and valued critical thinking over rote memorization, my students came back from high school and told me that 9th grade was easy after my class. After so “successfully” teaching to the test last year, I honestly don’t think my last batch of students could say the same thing.

Of course, this does not apply to the children of wealthy districts. Their teachers still have the luxury to help them think critically, to broaden their horizons, to go in depth. It is overwhelmingly the poverty-level schools who suffer under No Child Left Behind, whose teachers must forgo any but the most direct instruction, whose students are being trained to take tests but not taught to think.

I can’t even begin to talk about how badly No Child Left Behind is hurting the special education kids. We’ll save that for another day.

For now, I’ll just say that I have the deepest empathy for David Wasserman, the Wisconsin teacher who protested the state tests by refusing to give them. After being given the choice between his protest and his job, he caved, choosing to proctor the test in order to keep his job. In the public school system, it literally comes down to that: choose to conform or leave the profession. Unfortunately, every teacher who stays makes the same choice every year. And those who don’t – those who leave – we take up the burden of ambassador to the apathetic world, desperately pulling the fire alarm in a crowded room when nobody is listening.

(More thoughts on NCLB here.)

01 November 2007

Ten Questions About Writing

In honor of the first day of NaNoWriMo, and because I'm supposed to be writing, not blogging, today, I present:

Molly's Writing Meme

1. What's the one book or writing project you haven't yet written but still hope to?
I’m too superstitious to say, but it’s a title I came up with when I was in sixth grade. Then, I wanted to write the book to match the title. Now, I want to write about a sixth grader writing the book with that title. It’s so meta!

2. If you had one entire day in which to do nothing but read, what book would you start with?
I have those days more than I should probably admit. I guess I would start with something by Maureen Johnson, because I just read her Devilish yesterday and enjoyed it. Once I find an author I like, I tend to read every book she’s ever written.

3. What was your first writing "instrument" (besides pen and paper)?
What instruments are there, besides pen and paper? I remember writing/drawing an epic picture story on long sheets of butcher paper
when I was little, a Bayeux Tapestry for the elementary set. I kept little diaries all through my childhood, but I didn’t start writing in earnest (or taking myself seriously, maybe) until 9th grade, when I started writing in a pink notebook. Thirty seven journals later, I’m still writing in a rather pink little book.

4. Where do you get your best writing done?
I’m absolutely a café girl. I grew up just outside Madison, WI, which has a large number of fantastic cafes, including a long stretch of nothing but cafes (and bars and weird little stores) called State Street. We loved State Street. My friends and I took our journals to every single café on State St between 1994 and 1998. At Grinnell, I wrote at Saints Rest and the Forum and Bob’s and Burling and pretty much everywhere else; my college journals have headers like “2:09 pm, bench behind the science building” “6:16 am, fire escape outside Langan” “7:36 pm, golf course” and so forth. In ABQ I mostly wrote at the Flying Star and sometimes Starbucks. Now it’s a little café right down the street from me. Of course, I also write at home, but it’s easier to procrastinate when there are dishes to be done and bills to be paid. My favorite thing I’ve ever written, though, was written on the couch of my little house in Tijeras. I was terrified to write it, so I locked myself in the house with beer and green chile dip and ice cream and didn’t let myself leave until I was finished. I think I pulled an all nighter, but I absolutely succeeded.

5. What do you listen to when you write?
Music, always. In Chicago, I listen to WXRT a lot, which I love not only because it plays good music, but also because my parents listened to it when they were my age, and I like patterns and legacies. I also listen to mix tapes (yes tapes) that I made a million years ago and itunes set lists with names like “angsty high school songs” and “chick flick hits,” depending what I’m working on.

6. What's your favorite writing "machine" you've ever owned?
I do love laptops, because they help me to write in cafes. Currently, though, I think my favorite “machine” is my little USB memory stick, which has all of my works in progress on it and which I can plug into any computer and get to work.

7. What's your best guess as to how many books you read in a month?
Between 20 and 30, probably. It’s a little embarrassing, but I’m trying to own it. I do like being a go-to girl when people want suggestions, and I love talking about books…. Ah, hell. I love to read. No apologies.

8. Think historical fiction: what's your favorite time period in which to read? (And if you don't read historical fiction--shame on you.)
I’ll fall in love with any time period, if it’s well written. As a teenager, I loved Ann Rice’s rich historical settings, whether they be ancient Rome or turn of the century New Orleans. Ditto Marion Zimmer Bradley. That said, I do looooove reading about the 1920s and 1930s.

9. What's the one book you remember most clearly from your youth (childhood or teens)?
I can never answer “one book” questions; I feel so bad about leaving the other books out. In second grade, it was a book called Champion Dog, Prince Tom, about a cocker spaniel who wins every AKC challenge ever invented. In third grade, I was obsessed with this book called Race Against Death, about a diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska. The life-saving serum is carried across the tundra by a series of dogsleds in record time, saving the town and beginning the tradition of the Iditarod.

So… dog books. Yep, I was Dog Girl.

10. Why did you start writing? Why do you write now?
Betsy Lerner says, “As far as I can tell, people write for exactly two reasons: (1) They are compelled to, and (2) they want to be loved.” (“And that is why writers are so crazy.”)

That pretty much sums it up.

Happy writing!