Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Perspective

In the final days of the year, it is customary for one to look back and see what has happened. What went really well? Where have things gone awry and what was my part in all of that? How can I take what I've learned and apply it to making next year even better? How have I been a good person and how can I replicate that behavior? Where have I been inconsiderate and how do I make that right? The end of the year is an appropriate time to take an inventory and see where I am in life's ocean, figure out if the little flotation devices strapped to my arms are working and figure out if I'm going to sink, swim or lay still.

Speaking of laying still, I did that this morning. I have slept in every day since school let out, at least until 7 a.m. I wake up to a little grey kitty pawing at my hair. "Hey, lazybones, feed me before I blow chunks on your nice new comforter set." Eleanor is a good reminder that routine is a healthy and necessary part of life. I will not allow myself to lay still for long. This is my time of rest and rejuvenation. In a few days I will hit the ground running again, racing for the finish line of dissertation writing and revision, of research and reflection and becoming a better teacher.

It has been an interesting year. Julian Assange is the most fascinating person of 2010 for his Wikileaks and the backlash against him. He knew going into this operation that world governments would try to stop his project- that of publishing dirty government details online and in selected media and exposing corruption in Kenya, other parts of Africa and specifically in the United States as we try to keep the lid on our operations in Guantanomo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are even leaks about Scientology. He gets help from from anonymous bloggers, hackers and those interested in the transfer of information from the U.S. government to everywhere in the world. National Public Radio observed that Wikileaks cannot at this point be shut down without cutting power to the entire internet and I'm pretty sure that Al Gore isn't going to pull the plug. Interesting that Assange, an Australian, chose the United States as the primary target of his free government information for all campaign. This might be because the U.S. has the most liberal information policy- the Freedom of Information Act- or perhaps he had more contacts in the states. Our government is looking into legal recourse and has for now decided upon a smear campaign, insisting that while freedom of information is important, that it is reckless and dangerous to publish information about the wars we are fighting. Maybe this is true, but while lots of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I mean oodles both from direct fire and the aftermath of war, nobody has yet to die from what Assange put out there. Sweden is attempting to trump up charges of sexual assault and rape against Assange. If the charge is valid, I say Assange should go to jail for the crime. If it's not, and it appears to me as though this is a convenient way to make him disappear, then fuck it. Leave him be. The average American is too lazy to read Wikileaks anyway. Who cares if the leader of Libya has a male traveling companion who is probably his lover? There is more juicy information to be found on Perez

I agree with a friend who observed that perhaps Assange has selected the U.S. for his campaign not for the bountiful information, but for the lack of assassins employed to take care of people like him. As far as we know, the White House does not condone assassination and our 007's are currently occupied and have been for the last several years in the ongoing search for Osama bin Laden.

In other national news, I admire President Obama for his decision to repeal the draconian "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy. When President Clinton instituted the DADT law, it was an effort to protect gays and lesbians from persecution. That's where our country was at the time. And times have changed. I hope this decision reflects that. I love my president for his insistence that all men and women are created equal. I cried when I heard the news, for as Dr. King tells us, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

While I dislike the tax cuts for the rich that he agreed to, I trust that perhaps there is a better trade off for those who most need assistance from our government. I predict and hope that in 2011, everyone in the United States will gain the right to marry, regardless of gender. I have heard the argument against marriage equality- that if same sex partners marry, it will erode the family structure. This is 2010, almost 2011 and divorce is common, with adultery and emotional betrayal almost expected. It's time to let go of the myth of the nuclear family. Moms and dads have to work, children are commonly born into single parent households and frankly, there just aren't that many unplanned pregnancies or abortions with same sex couples. And no, nobody will marry their chihuahua or donkey if same sex couples are allowed the same rights as heterosexuals. These arguments didn't hold up to scrutiny in the 1950's when we banned interracial relationships and they don't hold true today. With Obama at the helm, hopefully our country will continue forward on a path to equality.

Speaking of equal and fair, I'd like to see a few other changes in 2011. Let's actually CLOSE Gitmo bay for good and figure out how to bring justice to those interred there without charges for years on end. Perhaps each and every one of them deserves a lifetime in prison for their crimes but they still have a right to due process of law. Beyond that, I want us to be a nation that gives due process according to the Constitution because it's the right thing to do and the moral obligation of a fair and just country. While we're at it, let's just go ahead and legalize and tax the shit out of marijuana. Nobody ever went on a pot rage, unlike the drunken alcohol-fueled rages we sometimes see now. And it can help glaucoma, still nausea for chemo patients and help the economy through regulation. It's mostly legal in many states now, so let's just go ahead and apply capitalism to the concept, k? Think of it: fewer people incarcerated, more people walking around happy (or at least stoned out of their gourds) and lots of revenue to pay for health care as we Americans burn our lungs out with ditchweed.

Next year, I plan to swim rather than sink or float through and pretend I don't see the world around me. I resolve to speak up and out when necessary. I'll put my money where my mouth is, buy locally and help my neighbors and friends. I will learn from teaching and teach learning and probably smack my head on some wall or door in the process. This is a good thing, though. Keeps me humble as I bumble. Keeps me open to learning, to love and to compassion and hope.

A friend recently asked me if I thought my students read the comments I put on their papers and if I thought it helped. Part of me is defensive- of course every student would read every word I write! They care and want to be better writers, or at least see what they need to do for their next paper to improve and get a better grade. But then I think that in a hundred years, nobody is going to care about what think of their writing. Hell, in five years, nobody will care. Ok, maybe just one year or next week. What my students think of me or what I do is not my business. I only rarely see the positive side of my work. I'm a tree planter and arborist and so are other teachers. The fruit doesn't ripen or even set on until roots go down, branches go out, the sun shines and the bees do their thing. I am even one of those trees, planted years ago and offering flowers to the sun. Asking me if I think it helps to write on student work is like asking a gardener how many of the thousands of fruit trees he pruned will one day bear fruit. Teachers and gardeners can only assume that their work is good and productive and hope that one day, the fruit will not be bitter with selfishness, but sweet with kindness passed on.

Happy New Year. Let's go sow some seeds.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Westboro Baptist Church Can Teach Us About Peace

This semester in my Composition classes, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was often the topic of conversation. In a unit on rhetorical analysis, I used their website to teach analytical tools. From the upside down flag to the music, page layout, words and blatant appeal to emotions, the WBC people seem like a cartoon because they are so overdone.If you don't know what the WBC is, they are a small group of people- mainly the family of the leader, Fred Phelps, who came to national attention for their protest of the funeral of a young man killed in a hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew, a gay college student, was lured into a truck with two men whose sole intent was to rob him. They drove him outside of town, beat him, took his wallet and shoes and tied him to a fencepost. Eighteen hours later, he was found by a bicyclist who thought he was a scarecrow until he saw the chest moving from Matthew's labored breathing. Matthew later died in the hospital and both perpetrators are still in prison. The WBC put a counter on their website- back when the world wide web was gaining popularity and not all bumper stickers had a website address on the bottom- with the "number of days that Matthew Shepard has been burning in hell" for being gay. The WBC bases their gospel and teaching on sex, mainly that it's the worst thing in the world to be gay and most of the bad things that happen are because of either being gay or supporting those who are gay. The church also discusses the opposite of love, which they claim is hate and decided to protest Matthew Shepard's funeral. This caused a national outpouring of opposition. Then Westboro decided to picket all sorts of events, from Fred Phelps is an attorney and he does do a good job of defending his group and winning challenges under the auspices of Freedom of Speech. These days the group focuses on homosexuality and soldiers killed in combat.

This makes the group easy to discuss from a rhetorical standpoint so I use them. You can imagine the reactions, ranging from outrage to a desire to shut the group down and discussions of burning at the stake and large caliber artillery. Then come the thoughts on
the differences between morality and democracy and decency. Once students get past their emotions, which can take some time, we attempt to discern the true purpose of the group and how powerful they really are.

The WBC has been active in Oklahoma this year, staging numerous protests against homosexuality and those who accept what I know to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. They decided in November to picket in McAlester, Oklahoma, at a funeral for a young man killed in combat. The unit on rhetorical analysis was over, but my students brought the protest to my attention. They asked for extra credit for attending the counter-protest, which is a common practice anytime the WBC people show up anywhere. Sure, I'll be happy to give you chump change as an excus
e to go see some real life up close and personal. Go right ahead and jump outside of your comfort zone. Four students went to the protest and reported back on the six prot
esters from WBC - including two children- and the thousand or so counter-protesters. The police had to surround the protesters to protect them from the citizenry. Lots of news and media hype. Someone slashed two of the tires on the church van, and nobody in town would fix the flats so the WBC had to have their van towed to a nearby Walmart. The students were giddy. We had discussions in class about the ethical dilemma of free speech and slashing tires (or worse).

I offered that if I had been there and had the opportunity, I would have endeavored to stop anyone from causing harm to the WBC people. No way, said the students. They got what they deserved.

But there are reasons and deserve has nothing to do with it. Chief among these reasons is that I remember the life and teachings of Dr. King. When effecting social change, we have got to follow the four steps of direct action and always act peacefully, taking full responsibility for our actions. It's cowardly to sneak up like a guilty thief and slash someone's tires. It takes no responsibility and works agains
t peace. How? Because in doing so, we justify the hateful actions of that group. They now have something to point to in order to further their own argument. He who angers you, controls you. And in taking a non-peaceful action, you negate your own efforts to restore sanity and serenity in the world.

Unless sanity and serenity and peace are not your primary intentions. In that case, go nuts.

The WBC decided to hold a couple of protests in Norman last weekend. The first was at Harvest Christian Church to protest women speaking in church and women pastors. The second was at Trinity Baptist and the third at Journey Church, to spew the regular hateful rhetoric. I put out a call on Facebook for friends to join me in counter protest. Three ladies showed up, one with her two little girls. We took our signs and attended the counter protests.

The first one was fine. There were only five or so WBC people and about fifty of us, including some bikers, some high school kids and assorted feminists. Women were the most prevalent, and we concentrated on slogans of peace and love and acceptance for all, and in enjoying the fellowship. At
the second protest, there were a lot more people, from bikers and Army wives and children to Zombies holding signs proclaiming "I was promised brains". The mood was almost prurient, with many people getting too close to the protesters and emotions running very high. I brought two dozen donuts and passed them out as though we were all at a picnic. I used the opportunity to diffuse emotions and met a friend I only knew through FB. Mr. David Slemmons, outlaw poet and peaceman extraordinaire. Another friend, a former student, attends Trinity and was glad to see me. I was glad to see her too. The thing is that the WBC people feed off of negative emotions. That's why they carry offensive signs, wear upside down flags that they walk on and sing ridiculous songs about death and destruction. They are easy to hate and they want that hate. I'm certain that they don't even believe their own rhetoric. Today on their website they had slogans proclaiming their gratitude for breast cancer. Huh?

This group is not that powerful. They are only fifty people strong, if that. They are easy to resist because they are so ridiculous. It's just like anything in life: an exercise in not taking it personally.

One of my students called me from Bowlegs, Oklahoma. Yes, it's a real place. The semester is over, but the WBC was coming to his town to protest the funerals of three of his friends killed in a car accident. In a car accident. Why does this require a funeral? Same reason they wanted to protest the death of a little girl who died in a house fire: retribution for slashing tires. There are always consequences of our actions. My student commented that he thought there would be a rumble, since "everyone in Bowlegs is armed." Perhaps with this one, the WBC has bitten off more than they can chew. They may have the legal right to protest, but eventually their luck will run out and someone is going to get more than a slashed tire and a punch to the face. They have already had their church attacked (from which they drew much media attention) and he worried that there would be even more problems.

I advised him to attend the counter protest if he wanted but to suggest that people focus on drowning out the WBC and keeping the attention where it needs to be- on the family of his friends and their time of grief. I knew that the bikers would show up to drown them out and that others would come to join hands and somehow create some peace from the chaos. I reminded him of Dr. King and how in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he said that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I think this experience will stay with him for some time. I know it will stay with me.

In times of great inequity, injustice and blatant disregard for what is right, it matters what we do and how we act. Our children will follow the example we set since they will ultimately enact our principles.


Saturday, December 4, 2010


I have always had a sense of adventure. I like new places and exploration. I never felt the need to stay rooted to one spot for too long. I like the ramble, the movement, the excitement of what might be just around the corner. We moved a lot when I was a kid and I learned to be portable. I remember when we bought a place up in Dayton, up the Touchet river in Rogers Gulch. It was 50 acres of rimrock and hillside punctuated with a strawberry field and a wheat field. It was surrounded by 800 acres of nothing but cattle, coyotes, deer, elk and bears and we had the whole gulch to ourselves. Yvette (my sister) and I scrambled all over that property in our Levis and boots and teeshirts. I loved it. And I loved moving on afterwards, though my fondest memories took place there, with a doublewide trailer and a 10% grade driveway. I think I left a good piece of my soul in the wild rosebushes and green apple trees that grew along the half mile dirt road. That's ok; it's happy and safe there. Tons of rattlesnakes to protect it.

As an adult I've moved around too. Washington, Colorado, Nevada, Oklahoma and some sticky places in between. I used to love tossing everything in my truck - because everything I had fit into just one truck- and moving to some new and exciting/depressing/hopeful/scary/unknown locale for new adventures and good coffee. I've always had a few common denominators along the way. A few photo albums, a very few mementos from my youth and Gray Kit
ty. Gray Kitty was a gift for my second birthday and probably the one constant from when I was growing up. I had a big teddy bear named FuzzyWuzzy that I used as a pillow, but my mother gave him away when I was 8. So I've had Gray Kitty my whole life and also tend to adopt cats that are gray. Go figure.

Five years ago this month, I bought a house. It's the third time I've purchased property but the first time entirely on my own. My ex-husband and I had purchased a house and some land several years ago, so I at least knew how to do it. I wasn't sure that this is what I wanted to do- to put down roots. I talked to people I respect and got their opinions. It's scary to stay in one place for me. I feel as though I'll get stagnant, bored, that I'll somehow grow old and die. For Yvette, it was easy because she doesn't share the same philosophy as me. She still lives in our same small town where we graduated high school. I'm not sure I possess the moxy to stay in one place for more than 5 years or so.

As one could imagine, moving around takes its toll on relationships. I like looking around the corners of the world and traveling light, with nothing to tie me down. I'm like a dog who jumps the fence at every chance, running through neighborhoods, tongue hanging out, smelling new things and sometimes getting rebuked by a skunk. I guess that not everyone shares this wanderlust. As I near the end of my doctoral program, the thing that has held me in Oklahoma will disappear. I find myself at an uncomfortable crossroads. I have solid relationships in Oklahoma. I know some very good people here. I love some people. I am a supportive friend and I have supportive friends here. I am a known quantity in my professional life. This is where I learned to be an adult. This is where I know the good sushi restaurants and where to find Ethiopian food that will make you poop funny for three days and this is where I know to go when my heart hurts. But I am also a fearful person and in some ways immature. Perhaps if I stay someplace for too long, then that place will define me. I will look around and ask "Is this as good as it gets?" and I'm afraid of the answer. So the open road calls. away...

So I have mentally hunkered down in a corner lately to try to figure things out. I don't know where I'm going to be in six months. It could be here. It could be Ada, Port Angeles, Oregon or Rome or any point on the map. I feel uncomfortable letting people get too close right for fear of hurting them or me if I leave. Maybe that makes me selfish; maybe that makes me unselfish. Maybe that just makes me cautious or maybe I'm just a scared little girl looking for excuses.

When I was 18, I wanted to go away to college. I had a boyfriend that I stayed in the area for. The guy is long gone and as it turns out, so am I. I didn't want to stay in that small town. Since I'm always coming and going and on my way somewhere, I think I don't have time to have relationships that are lasting. I sure don't think anyone would want to follow me around the world. Eleanor is easy but it's hard for me to own a dog because I can't go too far for too long.

I'm alone a lot by choice. It's the nature of my work as a writer and teacher and easier than speaking to people face to face, which is often exhausting for me. I don't know if I'll ever pull myself out of this and I don't know what it will take for me to commit to one time and place and situation and stay there for more than two years. I wonder if that is in me or if I will always be a gypsy and a wildflower, a dandelion seed blowing in the wind.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Teach Me

A friend of mine asked me if I thought he'd be a good teacher. He wanted to know my thoughts on the difference between a good and a great teacher. He said he didn't care about poverty. That's a good start, because if you want to teach on the college level, you'll at least need a master's degree and possibly a doctorate. Right now in Oklahoma, community college teachers start out at around $35-40k per year so not only will you be in student loan debt, but you'll be in debt for a long time. I'm going to tackle this and I'm going to forget something and later, I'm going to have to revise. Feel free to email me with suggestions.

I guess you'd want to start with knowledge of your subject as well as a healthy dose of love and respect for what you're doing without being a jerk about it. I like English. I speak English pretty well. I write in the language and I teach others to write in varying styles. We like to read and explore and discuss and pick apart literature and put it back together and discuss thoroughly all sides of the issues raised. And we (my classes and I) don't mind so much writing about that stuff. I don't grade on every aspect of grammar, punctuation and whathaveyous on every draft. First, I don't have the fucking time. Second, I don't really care about grammar. Third, my students read what I write on their papers and ignore the grammar crap so I'd be wasting my time anyway. I pick my battles. One some drafts, I look at grammar and address that with the individual students, face-to-face. It takes time and I have to remember who does what. Since I'm an English teacher I get asked all the time if I edit people's email or text messages. I don't do that either. But some of you, and you know who you are, need to check on the difference between "your" and "you're". If my whole class misses this, I will point it out but let's not throw my inner grammar nazi around. I make mistakes too and wouldn't want it thrown at me. I get the message across. My students tend to improve over time from exposure to good literature and practice writing, not from me farting a worksheet in their direction and saying that it will help. It won't help. So yeah, know your stuff. Be ready for questions because if you're passionate about your topic, it will become infectious and the questions will come.

By the way, you have about three weeks to learn everyone's name. Everyone's name. No exceptions. And get to know them. You'll do this because you care and because they will know things about you. It's common courtesy. I have 125 students and I know all of their names so the sheer number of students also isn't an excuse. Don't be lazy. Not to be overly dramatic, but sometimes your smile, interest or reassuring words are what pulls someone back from the edge. The only way it wouldn't be feasible is if you have over 150 in a class.

One thing I would seriously recommend is to check your ego at the door. Just because you have content area knowledge doesn't mean your students are beneath you. Your attitude will show. Nobody ever walked into my classroom knowing nothing. I don't care if you're teaching in a prison or in a university setting. My inmates had such practical knowledge and wisdom for life in the institution. My community college students were the most diverse, loving, compassionate, tough and hilarious group of people I have ever had the honor to come into contact with. My sheltered kids who spent their first day in a college classroom with me had special problems of their own to deal with and were just as loved or neglected as the children of middle-class people. If they were over-indulged it often taught them manipulation and appeasement. However, even the brattiest of spoiled children have something to contribute and something great to learn. Often, these students are the least aware of their own privilege and racism. I get along best with people between the ages of 18-70 who grew up or live in poverty. We just have a lot in common. I also enjoy teaching middle class students of all ages and dislike affluent or very rich younger students. But I can and will find common ground and will teach anyone I'm asked to teach (or paid enough to teach anyway). I do have to find common ground too, because people know when you're being fake. There is something really vulnerable about teaching; you cannot hide who you are. If you do not want to (at least in some ways) expose yourself to others, this is not the profession for you. On the other hand, don't go over-sharing. For instance, my students know that I taught in a prison; I tell stories to demonstrate themes for essays. They know I adore my grandparents- it's part of storytelling for the first personal essay. They do not know my marital status, my relationship status or my sexual preference or how much of how often I drink alcohol. In fact, I rather cultivate the idea that on the weekends, my nerdy friends and I use dry-erase markers to diagram sentences on the sliding glass door of my house for entertainment.

If you realize that teaching is the best opportunity in the world to remain a student for your whole life then this is the job for you. It's ok to not know some things and say "Hey, why don't we look it up? I love Google!" My students have taught me about the most surprising and unexpected topics in the world. All I have to do is show up, love what I do, and let go of the tight control-freak grip on the reigns once in awhile. You know, other people know how to ride a horse just as well if not better than I do. I walk down the hall every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to my 2 p.m. class and see my colleague. I just say one word: Rodeo. That's what it's like. You just leather up and try to hold on for 8 seconds. Some days you win, some days the bull bucks you off and some days you get the horns. None of those are bad days. The take-home lesson is that you aren't going to pour the wisdom of the ages into empty heads. You will be challenged and judged, like it or not. At the end of the day ask yourself if you learned anything and if you taught anything worth knowing.

Speaking of things worth knowing, I went completely off of my lesson plan on Friday with one of my classes. We were discussing the Westboro Baptist Church and their recent foray and protest of a soldier's funeral in nearby McAlester. Six protesters from Westboro- a known hate group- squared off against over 1,000 counter-protesters from Oklahoma. Wrong place for them to come calling I guess. Someone flattened two of their tires and nobody in town would welcome the group to fix the flats. They had to call AAA to take them to Walmart. I argued that it was wrong to poke holes in someone's tires. It diminishes us as humans and is also against the alw of the land- laws that we all vote on. The group also had a couple of young children with them, too young to know even what was going on. Three of my students went to counter-protest. My class was supposed to follow the plan of the other four classes, discussing our topics for the final essay and writing out the problem statement to prepare them for the next class. Nope. Such was our debate that we ended up constructing a definition argument on American Values or some such thing and talking about ethics. We missed out on some valuable topical discussion but I figured at that moment it was more important to teach what I could using an emotionally charged topic. It's just where the energy was. Doesn't happen all the time but I trust my students and they said this is what they wanted more than anything that day.

Now, speaking of lesson plans, you should always have one, even if you end up throwing it out. My plans are always hammered out from a larger plan that my students don't always see. I do my planning in units; four per semester that culminate in essays. The first one is pretty well stock until I can figure out who my students are and what they need. Then after that I just tailor everything to student likes and dislikes and what sort of writers they are. It's a neat part of teaching. I feel like I sneak behind enemy lines, learn about them and then blow up their defenses so I can push through a love of writing, learning, self-efficacy, critical thinking skills and a sense of agency as a human being. Yeah, I'm sneaky that way. It keeps my mind nimble so it's also a self-serving proposition.

The other thing is that there are two types of curriculum- the one from the syllabus and the hidden curriculum, or the one which is not visible or printed somewhere. The hidden curriculum includes the types of examples I use, whether or not I treat people fairly, whether or not I am consciously or unconsciously racist or if I favor one group over another, if I am sexist or religiously intolerant and if I push my political agenda and silence dissent amongst students who disagree with me. My avoidance of those things, those pitfalls of vice and vanity, will greatly improve my student's chance for success if they feel they can disagree with me, even vehemently so, and not be penalized for it. I foster an environment of trust from the moment they meet me and we decide on the class environment rules. I ask for votes on important issues like grading rubrics. I ask them to come up with their own writing topics. When things just aren't working, I ask to change it. Sometimes we do off the wall shit. Sometimes I lie to my students and sometimes I expose their narrow views and ask for change or at least a reconsideration. Sometimes you just need to do that and you can get away with it if you're working from a strong foundation.

Speaking of foundations, if you work in higher ed, you'll need to learn how to work with administration-types of people. If you work in secondary schools, you'll need to really learn how to deal with administration and also with parents. Generally, though, as long as you can do paperwork and plan well and do what needs to be taken care of, higher ed is a lot easier to deal with because your students are not minors unless they are concurrently enrolled. Occasionally I'll get a high school student taking my class for credit, but they know when they come in the door that I won't give special treatment beyond cleaning up my foul mouth. Often though, these are the most prepared students in the sense that they will usually have their homework done and can be relied upon to answer questions. They have often had year of AP courses and are ready for college.

Here is the one secret I've kept from my fellow doctoral and master's students: I reserve one day per week to do ONLY non-school stuff. I'm a grad student and also a teacher. I drive 144 miles a day for my job. I work on Sunday. So Saturday is the day that I take for me, unless it's absolutely necessary to devote my precious day off to some project. And you know, I have only done that once and it was the recent time-crunch involving my general exams. I have to grocery shop, clean house, do laundry, cook (a little anyway), and otherwise reset my brains somehow. I decided in 2008 that I would do this whole grad school thing right and that involves having balance. Balance means I walk away sometimes and I've jealously guarded my one day off rule.

In the end analysis, I'd say that you can do this job if you have the heart for it. You must teach who you truly are without trying to make little copies of yourself. People will follow you or not; give up the idea of control and just be the best example you can be. Those students are sometimes inanely stupid, unprepared, frustrating/frustrated, excuse-ridden with three dead grandma's every semester and sometimes they think they can get away with cheating. I have news for you too: sometimes they DO get away with it. Other times they are insightful, diligent, caring, compassionate, thoughtful and smart people ever. Not only do you need heart and a sense of humility, but also a bit of arrogance that what you do is important and that you're the best person to walk through that door put on your hat and gloves and hold on for the duration of the ride.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Apologies, but today this is more of a diary entry than social commentary. I just need to catch my breath.

My life is a series of matrix scheduling nightmares. Right now I've got three overlays going on. The first is my work schedule, then my school schedule and finally, my general exam schedule. Make that four overlays. I need recreation and food and sometimes, sleep. Let me break it down for you. And yes, I still maintain that I am the busiest lazy person in the world.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, without fail, I get up between 5:00 and 5:15 in the morning. I refer to this ungodly and heinous time of day as "Oh-Dark-Thirty". I am not pretty and I am not good smelling and I am not in a good fucking mood. Just your basic monster. Pretty sure I'm the conception of what your kid thinks is hiding under their bed. I could bite the head off of a bat. If I managed to shower the night before I can get up at 5:30. I leave my house at 6:30 and pick up my commuter at 6:35. He is usually late. I have left him twice. If I don't get on the road by 6:45, I will be late and I just can't do it. We grunt good morning and he promptly falls asleep on the drive. I put in my iPod and motate down I35 at lightning speed, then turn on 59 and head East. It's a back country road, no doubt. But there just isn't a main thoroughfare to Ada, Oklahoma so it's the backroads. I blow through Wayne, OK with no problem. Around Rosedale I usually hit a bit of traffic- a farmer out to check on cows. Either I pass and we wave or I just wait and know he'll be turning to the side of the road and into a field.

It's Byars that's a problem. There's a bar-cum-breakfast restaurant where all seven of the locals hang out. I like them. None are younger than 75 and they wave as I go through. It's called Gigi's. I'd like to stop in for some breakfast if I get up early enough. I go the posted 35 through here, not because I've ever seen a cop, but because there are lots of loose dogs around. Some sleep in the street. Others meander aimlessly. I don't want to get an alignment.

There is also an assortment of other four-legged critters in this town which seemingly eschews the whole idea of barbed-wire fence. Twice now, I've seen a mule hanging out, walking towards Gigi's for some biscuits and gravy. It's more common to see the cows outside the suggestion of a fence. Several homes on Main street sport horse pastures and one had a deer strung up on the front porch. I assume he was part of the winter menu. I'm all for that. You could sell him to a local organic shop for lots of money as organic and free range. Hormone free. But I bet the family would rather eat him and I don't blame them a bit. Deer meat is one of the only meats that this vegetarian will completely devour. Anyway, that's Byars. I zooooom on through 59 and eventually make my way to 3E which takes me the final 13 miles into Ada.

In all, I've driven 72 miles before 8 a.m. when I teach my first class. My first class is at 8 a.m. It's a Comp 1 class, just like my 9 a.m., my 10 a.m., my 11 a.m. and my 1 p.m. class. I have an hour break for lunch but rarely take it since students continually need help or want to come by and talk. Hey, I dig it. I like students who come by to shoot the breeze. My 8 and 9 o'clock classes, I'm not sure if I'm teaching or not. I make coffee when I walk in the door at 7:45 and drink it through the first two classes. Usually by the end of class everyone has shown up. I wake up and the sun comes up and lately I've been thrilled to death, seriously relieved, that the time changed happened and I get an extra hour of sleep at night. I sleep better and am not exhausted in the mornings. Anyway, my 10 a.m. class always makes me laugh and I feel perky. At 11 o'clock my students and I go skipping into the class and everyone is raucous. They talk over each other and over me and I talk over them and we take the noise levels down and up and sometimes lose focus but bring it back to center again. And the students range from 18 to 40 so there's lots of rich discussions from multiple perspectives.

So there is noon, and I have lunch. I usually bring ramen soup and heat it up. Sometimes it's just a protein bar and once in awhile, I'll walk over to the Student Center and buy lunch. Meet a friend, talk to my kids and go outside for the first time that day. More often than not, I don't see the outside until after my 2 p.m. class. I've got 2 women in that class that regularly show up and 14 men. It's what my colleagues who have observed (there have been five observations- a story for another day) a "sausage fest". Testosterone poisoning for sure. I was walking in today and caught the tail end of a conversation about how I might be older but I'm still hot. I wear loud shoes for a purpose. Figure it out. I tangle with overgrown boys for a bit and pack up to leave at 2. All of my classes are very funny and sometimes thoughtful and sometimes insightful as heck. One of my students felt excited at the prospect of doing primary research so he packed up his country self and went to Oklahoma City to interview two homeless people- a male prostitute and a woman who had lived on the streets for over 20 years. I didn't know he was doing any of this. He left his id and money behind and slept in a park that night. He said it totally changed his perspective. Right on, brother!! Three others recently attended a counter-protest against the Hillsboro Baptist Church. Even though the protest, six WBC members and over 1,000 counter-protesters ended in two slashed tires, none of my students reported knowledge of that event.

We are to leave promptly at 2. My commuter never shows up until 2:05 and sometimes 2:10 and once at 2:45 but I yelled at him. I almost apologized after that but I was very grumpy. I should've apologized. It's not too late. I might. But by then the coffee has worn off. I am tired and stick my iPod back in and sleep on the way home. The best thing about a commuter is that he's willing to drive home. We always take my car but at least I get a nap. I think this is the reason I am still human. It's another 72 miles home and we arrive at 3:20ish.

That's my work day for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tuesday and Thursday, we head out at 8:05 (8:10 due to lateness) and I keep office hours from 9:30 until 2. Then it's out again. I use the time to plan, grade papers and take care of the administrative crap that comes up. This Friday, for example, is East Central's Inauguration for the new president. This event, which I am required to attend, also requires me to order and pay for regalia to wear. Thanks. Regalia never, ever looks sexy, in case you wondered.

I love my job and what I'm doing. I'm lucky with administration and coworkers and students and the latitude to do what I need to in the classroom. It's overall pretty wonderful. I could only wish for two things: A window and some way to control the temperature. It's an office without any a/c or heating at all. Oh, and a pay raise. I'd like to be able to live on what I earn.

So that's work. I also take two classes the University of Oklahoma. They are my final two classes, ever. Strange to say but it's true. I've taken everything available in English Education and most other departments too. I love being a student and hope that this never ends, even as I finish a terminal degree. But on Wednesday nights, I get home from class, check the dog and cat and eat something, then go to class from 4:30 until 7. It's a teaching language class and I like it. I began my doctoral studies with Dr. Angelotti and he is my dissertation chair and closest adviser. I've written poems about his nose and shared with the class. It sort of goes on forever and at the end, hooks a little to the right in order to catch his reading glasses. He calls me a loose cannon but he's smiling when he says it and if I had an Italian dad, it would be him. He's in his 70's and thinking of retirement. Nobody will fill those shoes though. Not in my mind.

My second class is a curriculum theory course taught by the toughest professor in the College of Education. She got to where she is now, which is a very respectable place, by clawing her way through the patriarchy in a time when it was unpopular to do so. I like and respect her and always work hard. It doesn't take much to earn her respect either- just do what the fuck you're supposed to in the class and it will all be ok. woe to the unprepared doctoral student. I've seen her reduce grown women to a simpering mess. I make people laugh in the class and add some levity. Somehow she permits that and I enjoy being a nerdy clown. I think, in the process, I also help others to understand what she's saying. Critical pedagogy, after all, is a passion of mine. That class runs on Thursday from 7 until 10 p.m. and I turn around and get up at 5 the next morning for work. Friday is a sleepy day for this little muffin.

Then there is the debacle of my general exams. Did I mention that I adore my chair? Yes, well, he's also forgetful. There are new rules in the last year about when you can take your general exam and how long you have with your three questions. It used to be a semester and indeed, others in the College get longer. Then it was cut to three months, then four weeks. Your three questions are created by your committee and are to be answered in your finest academic prose with lots of "Probst argues...Freire comments that..Postman postulates..." and so on until you've effectively written only about 50% of your own thoughts. Pretty dry, but you can get through it. Like anything, academic writing is a tool that works better with practice. Lots of students were procrastinating and then putting off the exam until the next semester so they would have longer to work on it. Our department decided that students would get only four weeks with their questions, two weeks for revisions and then would orally defend to a committee.

My adviser forgot about my general exams.

Forgot. For two weeks despite my best reminders.

And I had half of the severely abbreviated time to do this. Clearly, though, it was communicated that the 50-60 page requirement would still be expected. You know, because I have nothing better to do.

Oh my freaking God. I did it. I wrote it. I texted my best friend constantly and probably annoyingly and had my battle buddy, Kim, work with me. She was in the exact same boat since we have gone through the program together every step of the way. That's her, to the right. We met at the library each weekend and on Fridays. We commiserated and wrote and whined and got kicked out of a room by the security guard wanna-be. I wrote at home and got up in the middle of the night and my house started to look like it threw up on itself. I sent my dog to my friend's house so he'd get fed regularly. One of my committee members hated my dissertation topic (one of the questions) but I sent it to my chair and he approved of it. So I only used very recent materials in the discussion. In all, I put in about 50 hours over two weeks, in addition to the stuff I normally do, just to get this in on time. I drank ginormous amounts of caffeine. I don't worry about my house because the neighbors next door with all the crap in their yard are awesome and keep an eye on the house for me.

And I did get the work done. I turned in about 50 pages, an hour and a half before the deadline. Now to wait for revisions. And don't worry, I'm setting automatic timers to call my chair to let him know when stuff is due.

Despite the rodeo that is my life, I do still have a lot of fun. I get time to write, which must be true since you are sitting there reading and I am here writing and together we make a transaction between writer and text and reader and meaning-maker. So I get to write. And I have friends. Really damn good friends who have been patient with my schedule this semester. I remember vaguely that I went to a Halloween party and that once I stayed over at Val's house when her husband was out of town. I run too. If I can't run or do something active at least 3-5 times a week, then I feel all out of sorts and bloaty and cranky and life just has no meaning. So I have been running. Not more than 3-4 miles but enough so that I feel like I've worked out. And there's yoga in the morning and a class on Monday nights. Amazing stuff, by the way. My yoga teacher uses a mixture of yoga, Chi gong and muscle activation techniques. We do some things that make the giant lump that used to be my rhomboid relax. Check out Thomas if you get a chance. And go to his classes. He's great.

Eleanor is hanging in there. She's a champ. At 14, she's now more literate than any other cat I've ever met and has more reading strategies than most people. Here's proof:
Big, the dog, lived through the experience. He escaped from my friend's house and ran home, across town, to our house.
Once I finished most of the work, I brought him home with profuse thanks for keeping him alive and walked. I love having him home. I get up in the morning and give Eleanor her tummy medicine- which she gets three times a day plus a pill for arthritis- and say good morning, rub his tummy and smooch his fuzzy doggie face. We went for a walk first thing when he got home. He goes off leash and we go around a huge field. It's a mile in circumference and by the end he and I are both content. But that night, he found an adorable kitty to play with. One with a big white stripe down its back. The rest is history.

So that's the story of my life lately. I'm tired from writing, though it's worth it, this effort. In a few weeks, class will end and the world will shift a little and I will change with it. Especially since I'm trying to rent out my house to move to Ada so I won't have to commute. That AND I won't have to teach until 11 on any given day. Whew! But then I'm writing a dissertation and doing research and getting settled and applying for jobs and so on and so forth. Life will slow down. Later.

Much later.

Good night, Moon.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fuzzy Bunny Slippers

I've tried to avoid going here. I really did. I hate word definition essays. When my students write them, they pick words like "love" and "beauty" and generally come up with writing that makes me throw up in my own mouth. One group of students worked together and decided the ultimate meaning of the word love was Jesus. I like a lot of christian values but their argument was that if you aren't christian, you'll never have love and will probably burn in a giant lake of fire for all eternity while being raped by Satan and assorted minions, goblins, ghouls and thieves. Like the worst fate is rape. Try reading 125 papers attempting their first rhetorical analysis. After awhile it's like dragging my eyes over broken glass. Bring on the sulfur and light a match. Meanwhile I have to sit back and clap and generally offer encouragement and repeat to myself "baby steps". They're not all bad. Sometimes students will take on concepts with some merit. Intermittently, they will come up with "justice", "freedom", and the odd definition of something like "fraternity". So those are a little better. The best ones I get are typically over social issues like oppression and racism. One student had the balls to write about the word "fuck". He was in love with his own ideas and so didn't do such a great job in the research department. Good visuals though.

Generally, I have my students look up a dictionary definition- something from Oxford and if possible, an older version since definitions tend to change over time. I have them find current connotations and uses of the word, alternative meanings and give examples, synonyms, antonyms and perhaps an image or two to go with it. Sometimes they respond with songs.

Now, because of my big mouth, I have to bite the fucking bullet and pull out a definition of "American values". I couldn't pull out something cute to define, like fuzzy bunny slippers. You know, if I wanted to define something, or analyze it, I think the more interesting subject would be the function of the bathrobe in the movie "The Big Lebowski". Old, musty, comfy and not unattractive- he is even wearing it in the scene just prior to conceiving a child with Julianne Moore. Probably far more pleasant to read than the dusty tear I'm about to embark upon.

I saw a poster online with a caricature of my president as a marionette. It was an older-style of depiction, one that looks , well, racist to me.
So I posted it to my Facebook page and put "These are not American values". And my friend R.E. let that one go for almost five seconds before he replied, "What are American values?".



So the Oxford mentioned words like "democracy, equality and material prosperity". Hmm. Ok, that's a start.

Democracy, then. But democracy for who? When the Native peoples were murdered and their lands added to America's, was that democracy? No? How about when we imported people from Africa and forced atrocities upon them, making them work for free and give up their families and children? And after slavery ended (No, it wasn't Abraham Lincoln who so patronymically freed the slaves out of the goodness of his heart. It was the work of hundreds and thousands of people), it took awhile to get past the 3/5ths rule, Jim Crow laws, then the separate but equal laws. Slave labor built this country, as it did Egypt and Nazi Germany. And the whole women voting thing too. In all these cases, oppressed populations have had to wrest power away from oppressors. It's not like some lawmaker in Washington suddenly grew a conscience and said to everyone, "Hey, those measly blankets and nasty government rations aren't enough. People deserve better." I'm pretty sure that democracy is or was an American value, but I'm also pretty sure that it isn't a value for just anyone. Today, we've got racism working against two groups. The first is the American Muslim population. Back in the day, prior to September 11, 2001, being Muslim meant you were eyed as vaguely suspicious. Now, Muslim is a dirty word because some extremists boarded planes and crashed them into our buildings on our soil. Now all people of this religion get profiled and occasionally for whatever reason, land on the no-fly list. Hispanic Americans are also suffering as a large minority group. Look at Arizona, where you can legally be pulled over for driving while brown and be made to furnish your citizenship papers. What the fuck?! I have never had to prove my citizenship. I'm a fucking American; the end. Do I look more American because I'm white? Apparently so. Perhaps what we fail to recognize is that we annexed part of Mexico into our great vision for the United States and that Texas reserved the right to secede if it wanted to. So excepting all of the legal Hispanic Americans, those who cross illegally do so at great peril, often die, and are vilified. However, there is high demand for illegal labor because it is so inexpensive. If we didn't have such demand, and if it weren't so crazy difficult to become a citizen, there wouldn't be so many illegal immigrants looking for a better life.

So I guess that does away with a demonstration of equality too. Equal if you're of a certain dominant race, or if you can pass for such. But our school system is still bound by race and by income and so those who are rich go to rich schools and the poor go to poor schools and those who are rich are generally White and those who are poor are generally Black and White and Hispanic. Because there can only be so many rich people. Someone has to have the sucky jobs. That's what material prosperity is built on- getting someone else to do all the work while you reap the benefits. The idea of prosperity is also relative, following Maslow's hierarchy of needs first and then if there is something beyond basic need, that can be classified as prosperity.

And don't get me stated on the whole "American values are Christian values" thing either. Bullpucky. Christianity was also used as a tool and rationale for slavery and for keeping women from voting. And also, I think according to the bible, I'm supposed to be stoned to death. And in the Christian version, women don't have any writing credits. So I'm not particularly into being subjugated by a book written in the name of a deity that condemns me for just about everything I do except for staying in my house and bearing children (preferably sons) for my husband.

Let me break here. I bet I know what you're thinking: that I don't love my country. That I'm a Socialist, Marxist, Fascist (cuz all those things mean the same thing, right?) Communist who wants to tear down capitalism. Oh, and that I'm an elitist intellectual with her head up her ass who can only think of rude things to say about My Country 'Tis of thee.. Right?

Ok, probably not. Of the five of you who read my blog, you probably know me well enough to know that I feel it my patriotic duty to bring up the ills of our past and our present so that we may not carry them over to our future. This is true. We've totally fucked some things up in the United States. And I think that we owe it to future generations to start cleaning up the mess. It's part of my job. And besides, there are a few things we do right as a country.

The big one is that jerks like me get to say whatever we want to in a blog and nobody can kill me for it. I can't be imprisoned for my ideas. It's my fundamental right as an American and as a United States citizen to speak out loudly when my government misbehaves. AND I get to practice any friggin' religion I want.

Know what else is cool about being a U.S. citizen? I get to have a gun. We all do. As much as I'm a left wing liberal and a bleeding heart and generally a terribly peaceful person, I believe in responsible gun ownership. Yes, yes I do. You know why? Not because I want to go hunting. I'm a vegetarian. Not because I'm scared of intruders; I'm a black belt in karate for cripes sake. No, it's because a government should fear the people and not the other way around. That's why. It's to protect me from oppression. And besides, what if there is a zombie attack?

I think right now, the U.S. is still redefining it's value system. We're deciding as a country whether or not Gays and Lesbians have the right to marry legally. We're deciding between oil consumption and ecological destruction, we're consuming the shit out of electronics and importing junk from other countries by the bucket load. We only manufacture 11% of our own stuff these days. Are we still a heavily capitalist (ignore the socialized programs like education, fire and police departments and social security) nation with emphasis on the dominant ideology filled with the rhetoric of White, middle class Protestants?

I can tell you what I'd like my country to be like. I'd like my country to be filled with political wrangling of two-term Congress and Senates who don't get a pension and pay raises every other year, without the need for social security payments or parking tickets. I'd like true ombudsmen and trust that the people we send to Washington are doing their jobs and then coming home and being careful with resources. I'd like to have more faith that not all politicians are dirty cheating scoundrels. I'd like to live in a country that values education enough to spend more on it than it does on the prison system. I don't have children but I always vote for school bond issues. I'm glad to pay for education. I'm a home owner and I know that's where some of my taxes go and I'm glad for it. Best investment ever.

I'd like a country that legalizes and taxes the shit out of marijuana. Nobody ever went on a pot rage. I'd love it if two women I know who have been together for 14 years could have a legitimate wedding if they so chose, and health benefits for spouses. Let me tell you, there are no unplanned or unwanted pregnancies in gay and lesbian couples. Just saying. And in my own state of Oklahoma, I'd love to be able to buy wine in the grocery store and to be able to order online from my favorite winery in Washington, because currently that is illegal too.

And a pony. I'd really like a pony. And for people in opposing parties to stop flying off the fucking handle and listen to each other. Move towards the middle already.

So to sum up, I'd like us to stop being a country with a teenager mindset and grow into an adult. I hope that's what American values are. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And a copy of the Big Lebowski's for everyone along with some fuzzy bunny slippers. Cuz that American.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Just Let Go

I enjoy worrying. It's a hobby. I like to plan for disasters. I used to have a worst case scenario in my head. I'd start worrying about things- jobs, money, homes, life, the environment, capitalism, education and the meaning of life. I'd worry about six or seven degrees of separation and in the swirling tornado of my brain, the disaster story so often played in my childhood ended with me living under a bridge with my cat, Eleanor, a shopping cart and a machete. I wouldn't have any teeth because of poor dental care. I wouldn't have good vision for the same reason and maybe I'd have glasses with one lens. But we'd be ok. I could consider it a weight loss plan.

There's something I don't really talk a lot about in my blogs. It's alcoholism. I don't know why; alcoholism has had such a profound effect on my life and on so many of my choices, I'm surprised I haven't written an encyclopedic volume about experience with it.

If you ever wonder if you have a problem with drinking, just read the first 164 pages of the Alcoholics Anonymous book and answer the 20 questions. That should give you a good idea. If you still have doubts or questions, call your local AA hotline. Someone will be very glad to help you and answer your questions. It won't be me though- I don't belong to an AA group and wouldn't want you to think that I'm some sort of authority on the matter. If you're curious, attend an open AA meeting and find out for yourself.

Often, the best people in my life are alcoholics. I like and tend to attract alcoholics as friends or boyfriends. It just works out that way. And they are often the most fun-loving, creative, kind and hilarious people you'll ever meet. They're just sick and need to drink. Alcohol isn't the problem; it's the solution to whatever is going on inside. I'm not sure I relate. I'm just relaying what I've been taught.

It's not a disease that just affects the individual either. It's a family disease and that's how I know of it. I'm not going to out any living person that I love but there this stuff squats like a toad in my family. It killed my father's parents before I was born. They owned a tavern. My dad was an alcoholic, apparently the fun-loving kind who got weepy when he'd had too many. My mom tended to date and marry alcoholics too, though I'm not sure where she got the idea originally. I think my dad just swept her off of her feet. And in my relationships, I seem to find and love people who have a drinking problem. Me, I like wine and dark beer. Probably not as much as I like coffee (which for some inexplicable reason, I'm drinking at 1 a.m.). But not too much because it has too many calories and it makes me feel fuzzy. I don't like to be out of control.

Over the course of my lifetime, I accumulated enough rage to power a small city. On the outside, I was pretty placid and seemed calm and peaceful. On the inside, though, something was just not right. All the time. Whatever I did never seemed enough. And I was (and still tend to be) highly self critical and also critical of others. I try pretty hard to keep that in check by taking good care of myself and practicing kindness to others as well. But I didn't learn to do those things overnight. I used to tell a joke about how the quickest way to a man's heart isn't through his stomach; it was with a small flat blade between the ribs. I guess maybe I was a little, oh, much to handle. There were some rough edges.

I went to years of Alanon meetings and had to take a few very hard looks in the mirror to look at my own fears, anxieties and crazy behaviors. I was used to blaming others and just stuffing my own feelings or not even knowing that it was alright to feel something at all. I needed to learn to stop waiting for my life to start and start participating in the life I had. I had an amazing sponsor who walked me through a program. Even though she is a member of a church, religion was not part of the equation. God, yes. Religious stuff, no. Eventually, it felt better to be responsible for feeling my own feelings and to respond rather than to react. Then I had to learn to draw boundaries and separate what actions and responsibilities belonged to me and what ones were out of my control. Let me be clear: I don't represent a group as I'm writing this. It's purely my thoughts and actions that I'm talking about here. My experiences.

Alcoholics love to drink; I love to control freak-out. I had (and still do have) contingency plans for everything. I bailed people out and cared for them far beyond reasonable limits with time, money and resources. Then I blamed them and punished them and told people how awesome and martyred I was so I could get sympathy. I can say that now with a laugh because while it's true, I know better than to pull that shit anymore. And I divulged more in those meetings than I ever could in a blog. That's how you get rid of the crazy; you gotta stop carrying it around. And I have more money now that I've stopped giving it to people. Bonus! Plus, I know how to not react with anger. I'm much nicer to be around these days.

I made friends with women who were just like me. Only different. Authentic friendships, not like frien-emies. Old, young, rich, poor, and with all sorts of educational and life experiences. We were just like one another. We helped each other and supported one another. We learned to laugh at the crazy stuff we did. Stalking lovers and husbands and ex's, going to great lengths to find and eliminate alcohol and to monitor intake. We laughed at each other. We got better. And when things got bad, we stuck together. A member of our group was killed by her brother (as were two other members of her family) in a drunken blackout. It was my first time to chair a meeting. She'd been a good member and friend. We had our meeting that night. You never know who is going to walk through the door needing help. And as her husband requested, a member was with her around the clock at the funeral home. She was never alone and neither were we.

After almost four years, I drifted away, got busy with other parts of life and stopped attending. I still retain many of those friendships and I know where the door is if I should need it. Or if I feel called. It's a beacon of sanity for people like me. It's my night light in winter.

The biggest lesson I learned is this: If someone is going to drink themselves to death, they are going to do it. My choice is either to get the hell out of the way or grab on and ride that ride until we're both bloody.

And lately, I've been reminded of that choice. Someone I care for drinks. And I know it can kill him. He knows what he is doing is poisonous. There is no question about it. I hate to watch and feel helpless. I think he hates it too. I am reminded of the voices of so many meetings. If he is going to die, he is going to die and the least I can do is respect his choices and the right to make them. I remove someone's dignity by inserting myself in the equation. Yes, I am right. I'm almost always right. It's a condition of my life. That doesn't make me helpful to repeatedly tell someone what to do even if I'm right. It just makes me an asshole. Secondly, the right thing to do for me is to stay out of the way- to not enable or assist and to generally mind my own business and take care of the things on my plate. There is an assumption I have to rely on in this case; that there is something out there greater and more powerful than me and that it alone can do what I cannot. If I truly want what is best, I can stay out of things.

That's why I'm writing this blog entry. For you. If you're still interested, or if you're riveted or think that perhaps I'm telling your story, please know that you're not alone. And you don't have to do this alone. I mean, seriously, how ridiculous is it that people like me don't even get our own disease? We just have a major hobby (obsession, whatever) of co-dependence on people with "real" diseases like alcoholism. I can usually tell if there's alcoholism in one of my student's families not by their writing about someone's drinking, but by their discussions of the control freaks and wet blankets and other people who might benefit from a meeting or twelve. Or even by their own need behaviors and the things they say. Letting go is scary because when you're not focusing on that other person, there's not much left besides a mirror and at first, what a person sees can be more than they can handle alone. So I guess that's the thing: You can let go. You are enough. You don't have to do this alone. It's not shameful. You can learn to laugh again. And yes, he or she may die but you can't control it.

Know when I say this to you, I also say it just as much to myself: It's going to be ok. Just let go.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rough Draft Poem

I sit, reading,
taking notes, considering,
conceptualizing critical pedagogy theory
Giroux dances in my head
McLaren plays the tambourine
fueled by caffeine.

Across the street
students play grab ass after school
a nurse walks past eye level
orders a venti mocha
and squats across from my table,
scrubs stretched across dough thighs

A teacher rushes in an dout again
two pounds of Pike Place
and comfortable shoes
hair she pinned into place early thi smorning
still obediently stays where she willed it.

Sunlight slants in across my
articles, messy, highlighted
with "discuss" and "wow" written
I'm not sure what I"ll use it for.

A woman saunters in.
Mid 30's. Blond highlights,
short bob, easy smile, sunglasses and
tan trousers tailored over Manolo Blahniks.
"Skinny Vanilla Latte"

This will not be me.
I'll never spend $200 on shoes and
I know no tailor. So
I gather my ratty sweater at the elbows,
push my bangs out of my face,
sip my bitter cup
and plan for a better world tomorrow.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Far To The Horizon

Barbara Billingsly died at the age of 94 yesterday. She was June Cleaver on the 1950's show "Leave It To Beaver". June Cleaver was an icon for White women of the time and also the standard by which women were judged. Up with the sun, making pancakes and bacon, rousting her children around to get them to school, taking care of her husband's needs (whatever that meant) and in general doing something known as "keeping house". One assumes that meant cooking, baking, vacuuming, cleaning windows and making beds and doing stacks of laundry from a washer that was located in her own home. I'm pretty sure June had her own car so she could shop at the local market and I'm also sure she did her own canning and didn't use boxes of anything for cooking.

There's something else, though. A few important things to remember about the Cleaver family.

1. They were prosperous. There was never a conversation about lack of money. The children always had nice clothes and June and Ward dressed well too.
2. June didn't work outside of the home, though I'd bet that she theoretically volunteered some of her time to charities.
3. June and Ward were obviously well educated, and their children had easy access to adequate schooling.
4. None of the main characters was an alcoholic, nobody fucked around and nobody hit anyone.
5. Dirt didn't exist.
6. You never see a hair out of place on June's head. Man, that must've been difficult. Jerry Mathers remarked that while Billingsly was a wonderfully talented actress and quite talented, she was often stifled on the set due to the bounds of her character. Oh the irony...

I get the feeling that this family didn't really exist, even in the 1950's, a time when we as a nation were dong fairly well. The middle class was growing and segregation was never addressed on television. Gays and lesbians were left out as well, though we know that more than hetero White people existed in the 50's. This show merely attempted cultural replication- a reaffirmation that everything was ok and that all problems could be solved with a father/son talk in half an hour.

If you fast forward to the 80's, you have a new iconic family: the Cosby's. Now that's a family I wanted to be part of. They had music, their own rooms, secrets, educated parents and kids who did sometimes stupid things and were loved anyway. Claire Huxtable was the head mom of five lively kids. She was worked full time and was somehow a good lawyer, mom, wife and friend. I bet she had a housekeeper. The best part for me was watching Cosby as Cliff Huxtable because he showed me what a normal dad could be like- listening to his kids and taking time for them but also being funny and strict and authoritative rather than authoritarian. And he was really, really funny. Their kids didn't seem a burden but rather a joy (despite Cliff's repeated insistence that all children eventually move out and stay out). That's the family I hoped would exist in real life.

Fast forward to today. We've got "Family Guy", "South Park" and "King of the Hill", and, and, and well, that's about it. Some animated cartoons portraying exactly what not to do- kids with dangerous attitudes and parents who are disconnected and self-absorbed. In fact, our entire nation seems self-absorbed. And I think it's safe to say that our definition of family in 2010 has changed and needs to be somehow acknowledged. More than that, I think that the way we think of an American woman's place in society needs to come back into proportion.

Oklahoma pretends that it's not been hit by the recession. This article in the Oklahoman- a newspaper repeatedly voted worst paper in the U.S.- reports that food stamp recipients rose for a record 30th month in a row in Oklahoma. Yes, even Oklahoma has felt a recession. And we're one of the poor states. Must be part of that trickle-down effect.

Why do we need a new perspective? Because the other day someone posted on Facebook that he was tired of all the jobless welfare mom's sucking off of society. Once I recovered from the shock, I took time to think about this from a perspective that isn't my own. I don't blame him-he works hard for his living and has to pay an enormous tax bill for being middle class. And it's true that some people take advantage of a system that is intended to help people who need it. And when I consider this carefully, this person would probably help someone in need. He's an Okie; that's how we do.

But I don't think that the problem merits such vehemence across the American conscience. We have this image perpetuated of some poor woman- Black, White, whatever, with bad teeth and bad English with four or five children stuck to her hip with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth standing in line at a grocery store in a mink coat, purchasing a cartful of choice cuts of meat with food stamps. Then the same woman trades the leftovers for a 50% markdown of cash so she can buy alcohol, cigarettes and meth. Then she neglects their children and lives in an opium den (ok, trailer park) and either she or her kids or both go to jail in an endless cycle.

Let's get a grip and discuss a real societal ill, mmkay? Let's talk about corporate greed politicians in people's pockets and the astronomical damage to our environment, our economy and the American ways of life. In a minute...

First, let's talk about single moms and single dads. We'll start with my mom.

My mom was pregnant with her fourth child in 1972 when her husband was killed. She was a hosuewife, an acceptable and expected occupation at that time. She moved back to her hometown where her family helped her some for a couple of years. She married off and on and always worked a job or two to help make ends meet. In her first marriage, she was home with the kids. By the time I was growing up, she worked at home and at a part time job. When necessary (especially between marriages) it was two or three part time jobs. Full time wasn't an option because then the employer would have to pay benefits like health insurance. She made less than 10k per year. I remember being an 8 year old latchkey kid. Our income qualified us for food stamps and government health care. We did not apply because my mother was too proud to take what she considered a handout. I didn't go to a dentist until I was in 10th grade. I cracked my pelvis in sixth grade when I was sledding and never even went to the doctor because my mother couldn't afford xrays. I spent several painful months recuperating. She did accept the Social Security income from my dad's passing. I remember distinctly how much it was and that the check came on the first of every month.

I wish my mom had gone on Welfare. I wish the stigma wasn't so prevalent.

I wish society would seek to understand the underlying causes for the need and use of Welfare. I wish we Americans understood poverty as a class issue and not just an economic one.

Think of it- you're a single woman and you get pregnant. The father might stay around and help, at least for awhile, or he might take off. Society doesn't judge him for that; they judge the woman. If she has an abortion she doesn't tell anyone and suffers that pain alone or with one good friend. Incidentally, it's now more difficult than ever in Oklahoma to obtain an abortion. This is why I go to protests.

Or maybe she grows up hearing that abstinence is best and therefore gets married at 18 and divorced at 23 with two children. Her ex may or may not help out. Either way, the daily energy devoted to taking care of the household falls mostly on her shoulders. If you're a single dad, just reverse the roles. Single dads get to be heroes for stepping up and being parents in this situation; it's just expected of women. I know and like several single dads. They're doing what they should but they don't think what they do is extraordinary. In fact, they have to fight twice as hard for custody if that's an issue.

Regardless of the cause, a woman, especially one without an advanced education, will have a hard time making it with children. She's relegated oftentimes to section 8 housing in bad neighborhoods. Childcare while she works her just-above-minimum-wage (so the employer can assuage their conscience while taking advantage of this plentiful workforce) job is equal to or even more expensive than what she makes if she puts her kids in regular day care. Private day care is better; if she takes the government subsidized option, the quality of care is likely to decline and her children will be more likely to need Head Start programs. A shoe-string budget doesn't have room for cars to break down and for expenses like braces and contact lenses. If that car does break down, she must fix it herself, rely on relatives or make friends with those who live close by so that they can form a network to get everyone where they need to be when they need to be there. One thing I have noticed between poverty class and middle class is this: If you're poor and your car breaks, you just knock on your neighbor's door. They will do their best to get you where you're going, to fix the problem or give you a ride. If you're middle class, you're socially inhibited from asking because you're expected to do everything for yourself. Self sufficiency, bootstraps and all of that rot. This was the weirdest transition for me, to not be asked for help or to not be able to rely on the people around me if I need something. It was my grandparent's greatest concern when I bought a house- that I make friends with the neighbors. In return, the woman in question can cook, do laundry or offer home made confections to thank the person who helped her. This is especially great for single men who don't often get home cooked meals.

So she pays all of the bills and once a month gets to go out with her friends. And people criticize her for that because she's not at home playing educational reading games to her kids 24/7 on her off time. Or maybe for three weeks of the month her kids eat macaroni and cheese so on the first she buys meat or takes them to a restaurant that isn't McDonald's. Her teeth may not be great, her accent might be off and maybe eventually she figures out that the only way she can make it is to quit that job and go on Welfare full time. At least she gets to be at home with her kids. And society judges her and punishes her and blames her for all societal ills. For me, my choice is to continue to support and change the amount and type of assistance offered. You can't just offer money (and I know it's not the only type of assistance) or token housing that's often dangerous and unreliable for heat or electricity. There must be a path, a way out; some sort of light and hope for a better life.

Incidentally, I know exactly TWO middle class families with a stay-at-home mom. One family has one child and they're doing alright. The other family has four children and they struggle every month to make sure ends meet.

And on to my secret confession of the day. I'd love to be a mom. I would. Couldn't imagine a higher calling than to populate the earth with little mini-me's, out there reading poetry and using words as leverage for change and acceptance and a world where we stop polluting the shit out of the environment. But I can't. At this point I'd be a single mom. And because I would want to put myself into that endeavor 100% and I can't afford to be a stay-at-home mom. Even if I were married or if I had a life partner, I'd still have to work and take my focus off of home life. And that's just not fair to anyone, including me. I'm busy enough as it is- a full time job and a 144 mile commute every day, plus two graduate courses AND general exams coming up tomorrow. No wonder we're a tired and heavily medicated nation.

The United States is the most overworked society in the world. Moms from two-parent households are more likely to work full time, shoulder the majority of the housework and parenting and must still conform to standards of health and beauty. I can't imagine how a single mom or a single dad must do it. How she or he must sacrifice and when those sacrifices aren't made for a day or two, how much guilt that would bring on.

The U.S. Social Security Administration defines social welfare expenditures as the cost of "cash benefits, services, and the administration of public programs that directly benefit individuals and families." This broad definition includes expenditures for social security (Old-Age, Survivor's, Disability, and Health Insurance, or OASDHI), health and medical programs, education, housing, veterans' programs, and public aid programs.

Let's talk about some real problems. Problems not concerned with individuals who take advantage of a system. Problems that create the environment where we need so much from such a system. I'm not sure how much the nation spends on Welfare programs for single parents. You can find out more here, but that includes all social programs. I do know that in one year, we spent $40 billion on private contractors for the war effort. I know that corporations regularly and repeatedly rape the middle class and exploit the poverty class. I want to know why those people are hailed as captains of industry while stealing billions and single moms are ridiculed and crucified without so much as anyone asking that population what they want, what they're doing or if they have hopes and dreams of their own.

Barbara Billingsly died and may she rest in peace. She sounded like a nice lady.
Perhaps now is the time to move on. Please, America, stop this bit of strange thinking. It makes me tired. Stop hating women. And Oklahoma, do me a personal favor and cut down on the female incarceration rate. We're 300% over the rest of the nation and are #1 in the world in percentage of women locked up. And what the fuck is with private prisons anyway... ah but that's a rant for another day.

At some point soon and hopefully in my lifetime, we're going to have to change our entrenched conservative thinking. We're going to have to change with the times and adapt or else risk the waning of our sun in the sky. I'd like to see a world where Welfare is used for what it's intended to do- to help people when they need it. Look far to the horizon and fix the root cause; then the rest shall fall into place.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


I have had to take some time to think about this. Carefully. I still shake when I think about what happened yesterday and why I had the urge to slap a student so hard that her Grandpa felt it. Even in the prison system, my students didn't speak that way.

Let's set the scene. Every semester, rain or shine, regardless of how many students I have, I take time to meet with them individually about their writing and to allow them to ask questions. We talk about their papers, I offer suggestions for improvement and congratulations on the work they've already done and attempt to look like a human being for fifteen minutes rather than just some professor with a talking head. It works, generally speaking. I have about 120 students.

This week was conference week, and I went home from work every day with eyestrain from going over paper after paper and discussing the same issues. The student doesn't know that I've said it a million times, it's still the first time he or she has heard the part about where it's APA guidelines to use words like "Black", "White", "African-American" (don't forget the hyphen) and "Caucasian" to describe race. And if you're quoting Dr. King directly, you cannot take out the "N-word" where he uses it, even though it makes you uncomfortable. And no, we don't use the words "honky", "cracker" or "colored" either. My classroom is where we make those mistakes and one of the reasons I meet with students on this particular essay is so that those embarrassments can happen in private with low-risk of shame, but still offer the maximum opportunity for the students to learn.

Just for levity and for my own amusement, I follow up on some of our class discussions. I make it a point to say during the course of our class meetings to say that I dislike the use of the word "very" in their papers. It's unnecessary and redundant. We've discussed this many times by now and how it's alright to use in common speech but not in a formal paper (Don't even scan my other blog posts, I'm sure it's in there somewhere!). If I see the word in their paper, I'll pause briefly and draw a little box around the word. Smile a little. Put the pen in my left hand and scratch it out. Then take out a black marker and mark it out while discussing something else. Then finally, I'll get out the white out and make it disappear. I love the looks on student's faces. We usually laugh out loud and then the point is made and everything moves along.

I laugh a lot during conferences anyway. Sometimes my students relate the best stories from class or from life. They'll share trials and tribulations from their first months at college and make the most astute observations. And their writing is improving and they want to share that too, so we celebrate. Often, my students have never performed a rhetorical analysis and they're proud to have accomplished the task. I promise that the next essay will be a lot of fun. This week I've gotten to discuss Elvis (several papers on Elvis' letter to Nixon), Dr. King (two or three speeches), President Obama, JFK, Rhianna, Eminem, the Westboro Baptist Church and The Laramie Project. Overall, I'm pleased with the movement from brand new college writer to more sophisticated and complex projects. Speaking of sophisticated, one of my students writes a blog called Check it out if you get a chance.

A dark spot on this week is the death of my Great Aunt Earline. The identical twin sister of my Grandma, Verline, she had been taken off of life support and passed peacefully with her family (including cousins Lolly and Roy) at her bedside. I'll miss my second Grandma, and worry about the effect of this loss on Grandma. Last week was the first anniversary of the death of my Grandpa and the first wedding anniversary she celebrated without him- their 64th.

That brings us to Friday afternoon at 1:20. I had just three appointments left, then I'd be out the door for the weekend and on my way to Dallas for some fun and also time to read and do homework in preparation for my general exams. I met with D, who had done a particularly nice job on Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. We discussed in particular the audience and the message of unity and brotherhood and what made his message of well-received. I felt revived despite having read 22 other essays that day. I promised this student, who is an athlete, to come to a game. My second student was right on time and had chosen to do her essay over a White supremacy website. She had written her proposal over it and I had approved. I didn't think that she had approved, but she did.

The essay was not an analysis or discussion of rhetorical strategies. I asked her why. She said she didn't want to sound biased. It's not possible to be unbiased. Plus, this is a hate group under watch by the government. How do you feel about this?, I queried. You mean do I agree or disagree with them?, she asked. She didn't want to say. I was surprised. It's 2010, she's an articulate White kid with multiple tattoos and piercings and a studio art major. I made an assumption about her being a hipster. Apparently it was a bad one. She said "Well, I think they're extreme and extremism is bad in any group (something I'd declared in class), but I'm also proud of my White heritage. I guess that makes me a moderate." She had learned the rhetoric of unity and was using it to further her racist argument. At least she had been paying attention a little bit in class.

My jaw dropped and my face turned as red as a beet. My office door is always open and the students and I are visible to the casual observer just for instances such as these. It was then that I saw the feet and legs of my last appointment- a dark skinned Hispanic student who I knew was writing about a love song. Irony, anger, shame and more anger flooded through me. "Hey," I wanted to say, "Why don't you come in here so she can tell you why your DNA is inferior to hers. Go ahead, young lady, tell this young man why his little girl should never be allowed the same success in society as whatever offspring you produce, even though he works as hard or harder than you and even if it took more for him to get here today than it did you." But I didn't say that. I immediately checked my feelings, lest I shake the racism out of her thick skull. Had she not been paying attention the last four weeks as we dissected hatred, racism, and the dangers of separation and oppression? Bitch slapping wasn't the answer, even though it would be gratifying. Dr. King used the route of peace, love and brotherhood for his tools and I'll be damned if I'll let ignorance, and in this case, willful ignorance, get in the way of my educational objectives.

I got professional. At least the paper didn't have any blatant insults. No way could I have handled that. I explained what being a moderate was after showing her how to do the actual analysis of the website. What was their purpose? What rhetorical strategies did they use to achieve that purpose? How effective are they in their endeavors and how can you tell? I checked her language use, reminded her that there is no such thing as unbiased information and sent her on her way. Smiled broadly at my last student as he sat in her recently vacated chair, and walked into my colleague's office. I put my head on her desk and whispered my confession. She rolled her eyes. "Jesus, you need a drink. What did you say?" I told her. "I'd have kicked her out." It took a full minute to shake off so that I could be of good service to my last student.

I still have to grade her final paper. Our rubric will be decided by the class and hopefully will assist me in a less biased evaluation of her writing. This is America and as much as I disagree with someone's opinions, they have a right to them and a person in authority- in this case me- shouldn't hold power to control what another person thinks. Writing the essay in third person helps with the most flagrant abuses of opinion, but the things they choose to talk about and how they present that material will represent their world views and perceptions.

I'm not sure I handled that well. I'm not sure how to handle people who think so differently and in my strong opinion and experience, so fucking wrong. I sort of feel sorry for her because she's closed off her mind from growth, interaction and enlightenment and will be stuck in the perpetual cycle of restricted discourse and dialog with only those who agree or who have indoctrinated her into that mindset. One of the major benefits of attending college is to open the mind to experience new horizons, viewpoints and thoughts. I'm offended that she would waste such a privilege But then again, if I were being snarky, and just being myself instead of the professional educator and role model that I'd ideally want to be, I'd admit that she's getting what she deserves.