Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Drug of Choice

Every year I do a project with my students in which they translate the theme and mood of a book they've read independently into a piece of abstract art. We start by reviewing some basic elements of visual art. I teach them a four step process through which they can write an intelligent interpretation of a painting.

We begin with representational art. They have a lot of fun with Picasso's "The Old Guitarist."

Then we graduate to abstract art. I start with Jackson Pollack.
We look at Mondrian, Kandinsky, and others, but they respond most viscerally to Pollack. I always get the requisite, "My little sister could have painted that." In fact, I want them to say something to that effect because it gives me the opening I'm looking for.

The difference between simply slinging some paint around and real abstract art is intention. What was the artist trying to convey? What was inside of him screaming to find a way out? We use our four step process, and suddenly, teenagers are writing insightful interpretations of Pollack. Nobody gets angst better than a teenager. When they start to see what Jackson Pollack has communicated, they respect him.

That's the trick for any artist, isn't it. How do you make someone understand your vision? Feel what you feel? Think of the best book you ever read. You love it because it made you feel something. You had a moment of communion with the text, with the artist.

My favorite moments as a writer are when I know I've translated a real emotion into words that will move the reader. When my very first beta reader, Amanda, talked about a scene in Sapphire Sins, she clutched her chest and told me she cried. She couldn't have given me any higher praise. In the sequel I've temporarily abandoned because of a cohesion problem I can't wrap my brain around, there is one scene of which I'm particularly proud.

This song was my inspiration. (Yeah, I totally wanted to play with my new toy.)

My character moved from sadness to rage, and as she became angrier, so did I. By the time I reached the end of the scene, I was pounding the keyboard like I had a grudge against it. The song ends with a primal scream and so does the scene in a manner of speaking. Finishing that scene produced an intense high that only comes with creating something worthwhile.

When my students successfully interpreted Pollack's work and appreciated it, they felt a version of that high. When you read a book you love, you get a contact high from the writer's accomplishment. If it's cold and snowing where you are, then I highly recommend spending the weekend with a book, a song, or some other work of art and getting totally wasted. :)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sweet Dreams

I have a new toy for my blog! Music via Lala!

Now when I decide to amuse myself at the expense of some poor songwriter, I can imbed the song right into the blog. I can also play most of the contents of my ipod on any computer anywhere because I've uploaded my library onto my Lala account. Click here to check it out.

I'm leaving you with a couple of songs to jumpstart your dreams.

Bruce's favorite:

And one that reminds me of my protagonists in Sappire Sins:

Sweet Dreams...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

January Random: Jazzercise and Joe Biden

Few things make a writer happier than reader appreciation. Yesterday, a colleague stopped me in the hall and said, "I went to your blog yesterday. I thought with the snow day, you would post something new." I have to admit to a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness. Not only does someone read my blog, they look forward to it.

I did take advantage of the snow day to write, but all my efforts were spent on my WIP. I've been floundering around trying to find the voices of these new characters in my head. I made some headway Tuesday, but spared no time to blog. So now, when I should be grading Animal Farm tests, I'm blogging on random topics.

I started exercising this week. I've wanted to get back in shape for a while, but I was looking for the right opportunity. I hate running. It's too cold to walk outside, and I'm not interested in going to a gym by myself. Last week, one of my co-workers who has been waxing lyrical about Jazzercise, invited a group of us to come along. Something about the herd mentality made it easier to say yes. Everybody else was doing it, so I might as well go along for the ride.

It was fun. No, really. Jazzercise incorporates dance moves into the cardio portion of the workout, and I was with a big group of my friends. It's kind of like vigorous line dancing, without the alcohol. (Although when my friend, Pam in Iraq, heard Linda and I were jazzercising, she wanted to know if they were offering free wine with a membership.)

I've gone three days in a row now. Somebody told me you have to do something at least ten times before it becomes a habit, so I'll let you know how it goes. When I get tired, I start writing in my head to distract myself. The first night, I was behind a woman with "John 3:16" emblazoned on the back of her t-shirt. Brittany Spears' Three was playing. The incongruity of those two inputs cracked me up. Listen the words sometimes. Three is not referring to the holy trinity. I imagined a character who would think Brittany's three was a religious experience. I might use him in my WIP.

On a separate and totally random note, I watched the State of the Union address last night. I'm not going to comment on the speech or politics, but if you missed it, watch it on YouTube, paying particular attention to Vice President Biden in the background. My fifteen year old was watching as an assignment for his social studies class and pointed out something interesting. Our Vice President is an animated man. His unusually wide smile prompted my son to compare him to the guy on the cover of Mad Magazine. We missed a whole section of the speech because our son had Bruce and I laughing hysterically as he narrated our VP's facial expressions. I think there might be a writer's soul in that boy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

I'm a PC, and I'm Frustrated

You've seen those computer commercials. Mac is young and hip, and while pleasant, PC is middle-aged and somewhat dowdy. PC is plagued with viruses. When they bring the new PC in, he's slick in an expensive suit, but restrictive in what he will allow the potential buyer to do. I've always thought this was brilliant advertising, but I viewed it as exactly that...advertising. Clever, but until recently, not enough for this creature of habit to consider switching.

In the spring of 2008, I bought a new laptop, sleek, lightweight, with a big high resolution screen. I opted out of the extended warranty. We never spend money on those things. The one time we did, there was a loophole that kept us from cashing in when the electronic device in question went bad. Of course, one year and one month after I bought the computer, it began having issues. For no apparent reason, it would freeze up while I was in the middle of something important. The task manager wouldn't even open, and I would have to force restart. The interval between these freezes shortened until finally, the thing wouldn't boot all the way up without locking up.

I took my computer to the Geek Squad. They looked it over and told me I had a bad hard drive. Cost of replacement and labor -- $200. Seriously? A third of the cost of a good replacement?

This happened mid-summer when, as a teacher, I am flat broke. I can pay the bills and that's it. So, I put my shiny, nonfunctional computer on a shelf. I dragged out a dinosaur I had previously used only for word processing because it was too old to talk to my wireless router. I bought an adapter and made do. After school started and I had money again, I kept making do. I didn't want to pay $200 to fix a computer that shouldn't be broken after only a year.

The dinosaur didn't like working harder. It was happy to be a glorified typewriter. Recently, that testiness translated into a sluggishness that made doing anything, even word processing, highly frustrating. Yesterday, I hit my breaking point.

I retrieved the shiny, nonfunctional computer, crossed my fingers, and started it up. I needed to retrieve last year's tax return and some pictures from the hard drive before I bit the bullet and fixed it. Lo and behold, it booted all the way up. I copied the tax returns and my pictures onto a flash drive, alternately holding my breath and whispering, "oh, please, please, please work." After I copied all the essential information, I opened Internet Explorer. My luck ran out, and the computer locked up tighter than Fort Knox.

I called my tech-savvy friend, Thomas, for a recommendation on a computer repair person. I had decided I would rather shell out a boatload of money to a person than to a corporation.

"Doesn't sound like a hard drive problem to me. Sounds like you have registry errors. And even if it is a hard drive problem, it shouldn't cost $200 to replace it. Try reformatting the hard drive and running a system recovery."

I did, and it worked. My computer is humming along like it did the day I brought it home. Total cost? $0

Imagine that. The Geek Squad was going to overcharge me to replace a hard drive that didn't need replacing. I let a perfectly good computer sit unused for 5 months. Next time, I'm calling Thomas first and the Geek Squad never.

According to Thomas, this isn't an unusual problem. Some PCs have to run a system recovery every six months or so. Seriously? I'm overusing that word, I know, but seriously? I have to erase everything on my computer and start from scratch every six months? Are you listening, Microsoft?

I'm a PC, and I'm frustrated.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In which I become the grammar police

When people discover I'm an English teacher, they sometimes get all weird about watching their grammar. I usually just chuckle because I have enough social grace not to correct adults when they end a sentence with a preposition or drop a double negative into the conversation. It's part of the vernacular I've heard my whole life. While my mother meticulously corrected my non-Standard English, I understand the conventions of our regional Kentucky dialect.

I do make a point of always correcting my students. I don't devalue the language taught them by their mothers and grandmothers. I impress upon them the importance of code-switching. Maybe "you was goin' down yonder" at home or with your friends, but "you were going over there" in an academic or professional setting. By and large, kids get this.

We all get it. We code-switch all the time. My author voice and my teacher voice are different. I choose my words more carefully around my grandmother than I do my best friends. Shoot, when I hang out with certain branches of my family, my accent thickens and the occasional "ain't" falls out of my mouth. HOWEVER, when I am in a professional situation, I absolutely use Standard English. Capital S. Capital E.

When professional people can't code-switch, it crawls all over me. When professional educators can't code-switch, I have to restrain myself from calling them out on the spot.

I recently sat through two days of professional development. The information was great. The presenters were experts. They clearly knew their content, and overall, did a good job of delivering it. Unfortunately, one of the presenters had an annoying grammatical habit. To make her point, she often referred to her practices as a teacher by saying, "I did this my own self." Or "When I did this my personal self..."

ACK!!!! You are talking to a room full of educators. Your own self? Your personal self? Do you have some other self besides your personal self? Your impersonal self, perhaps?

The first time I dismissed it as a slip of the tongue. We all make them. By the third or fourth time, I was rolling my eyes at the English teacher sitting next to me. The fifth or sixth time induced whispered comments, and while I was commenting or chuckling at a comment, I missed the content she was trying to convey. I was seriously distracted by her "own self."

You can't code-switch if you don't know the Standard English rule. No matter how intelligent you are, your speech will give the impression you are an uneducated rube. I preach this to my students. I drill it into my boys' head when I meticulously correct their non-Standard English. I know it's annoying because my mother did it to me. I would ask, "Where's my shirt at?" She would respond, "behind the at."

I'm whispering a prayer of thanks to my mother. People may whisper cattily when I speak, but it won't be because of bad grammar.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Words Matter

Bruce and I were riding in my car recently, and the radio was tuned to the top 40 channel I listen to when the boys are with me. Bruce almost always keeps his radio tuned to classic rock. While I like classic rock, I'm mildly offended by the idea that music from my high school and college years is now "classic." On the other hand, Bruce can't stand hip hop which comprises about half of a top 40 station's playlist.

We were talking, and the radio was just background noise, so for a while, it really didn't matter what was on. We hit a lull in the conversation just as Fireflies by Owl City began to play. I like this song. The melody gets stuck in your head, but it's a happy, nonsensical song that lifts my mood. I began to sing, and after a minute Bruce started laughing.

"What the hell is this song? It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

You can listen by clicking here, but consider the opening lyrics:

You would not believe your eyes
If ten million fireflies
Lit up the world as I fell asleep

'Cause they'd fill the open air
And leave teardrops everywhere
You'd think me rude
But I would just stand and stare

The song is about dreams, but you have to listen a couple times before it makes sense. Bruce began to sing along as well, but he made up his own lyrics about how a kindergartner could have written the song. (I wish I had a clickable link for that.) He didn't like the song at all because he thought the lyrics were dumb.

All I have is anecdotal evidence, but I believe this is a common phenomenon. I was driving to Lexington with my eldest son yesterday and heard a song called Carry Out. I recognized Justin Timberlake's voice, and I kinda liked the music, so I tuned in to the words. Like a lot of hip hop songs, it was blatantly sexual. Okay, whatever. Cleverly done sexual lyrics don't particularly offend me. Too often, though, rap singers think they're being clever when they aren't. See my infamous Salt Shaker post for more on this.

Carry Out is an extended metaphor comparing the object of the singer's desire to fast food.

You look good, baby must taste heavenly
I’m pretty sure that you got your own recipe
So pick it up, pick it up, yeah I like you
I just can’t get enough I got to drive through

Take my order cause your body like a
Carry out

The singer goes on about having it your way, supersizing, and so on. To hear the song, click here.

These lyrics don't come off as clever to me. Seriously, what woman wants to be wooed by having her body compared to fast food? And the idea of a "drive through" encounter isn't remotely sexy. The kicker is that the music is sexy, but now that I've listened to the lyrics, the song doesn't appeal to me anymore.

Bruce thought the fireflies were stupid. I was put off by fast food sex. The lyrics to a song are like the story to a movie. Without compelling words, it's all just spectacle.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Put your Pickles away, boys!

Early Release days are a little piece of hell inflicted on secondary teachers in my district. One day a month, students leave two hours early so that teachers can meet to work on curriculum pacing guides, common assessments, vertical alignment and such. Teachers sit in those meetings hollow-eyed, quietly sharing their Early Release survivor stories.

A short day, in and of itself, should be a good thing. Most people are buoyed by the idea of an abbreviated work day. High school students are extremely buoyed by the idea. They come to school more alive and energetic than any other day of the month.

Anyone who has kids or works with them understands the effect of a change in routine. Our school has decided if we're going to change the schedule, we should go for broke. School clubs meet throughout the day, so students come and go all day long. I don't want to insinuate that kids use these meetings to skip class, but suspicious behavior abounds. The kid who doesn't know Joe Biden from Nancy Pelosi is suddenly an avid member of Young Democrats. The class potty mouth is hustling off to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. This morning, the poster boy for urban cool tried to convince me he was in the FFA (Future Farmers of America).

The cherry on the top of the day is lunch. There isn't enough time to allow 2300 kids to eat in the cafeteria, so they pick up sack lunches and bring them back to the classrooms. You haven't lived until you've eaten lunch with 32 high school freshmen. Usually, the kids get some sort of cold sandwich, chips, and a bag of carrots in their sack lunch. (I really, really hate those carrots.)Today, the kids got soyburgers, chips, and a giant pickle in their sacks. Yes, you read that correctly. Giant pickles.

Oh, the hilarity of a giant pickle in teenage hands.

My collaborating teacher looked at me and said, "This is wrong on so many levels." And so it was.

The pickles were a hot topic of conversation in our after-school meeting. If the anecdotes are to be believed, the comedic possibilities of a giant pickle are endless. Even the most well-behaved students couldn't resist a comment or a gesture. The classroom management conundrum is whether to address the pickle comedy or to ignore it. One of my colleagues lost her patience and snapped after a particularly graphic giant pickle moment and uttered words she never thought she'd say in front of her class.

"Put your pickles away, boys!"

My decision to ignore the pickle-induced hysteria was likely the best decision I made all day.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Oh Give me a Home...

My closest friends understand their lives are fodder for my blog. Case in point: Linda, texted me from Jackson Hole, Wyoming where her family was vacationing over the holidays. "I have major blog fodder for you." Since she's game, here's her story.

Linda's husband, Robert, is all about adventure. He's done the Grand Canyon several times, rafting and hiking out and hiking rim to rim. Later this year, when his friend, Martin, tackles Mt. Everest, Robert is climbing as far as base camp. In this spirit of adventure, he took his family on a snowmobile expedition of Yellowstone Park.

Just thinking about Linda on a snowmobile makes me snicker. Outdoor sports are not her thing. One of her daughters is an avid soccer player, so Robert got them tickets to a pro soccer game in St. Louis last summer. Linda sat in the car with the AC because "It was too hot." When she spent five minutes as the Sports Information Director (Oh, the irony!) for a very small college in eastern Kentucky, she referred to baseball as the sport they play "with hard little balls." So it's not surprising that when Linda's snowmobile broke down, she was more than happy to ride behind someone else. The terrain was beautiful, but driving was "a pain in the ass."

They travelled about 60 miles a day for three days. (Again, typing those words makes me shake my head in disbelief because it's Linda we're talking about.) Their guide was a "true, don't-tread-on-me, gun totin' Marlboro Man." His instructions were clear. Stay on the road in a single file line, and give the buffalo a wide berth. They are dangerous and will charge when threatened. Good advice for the novice outdoorswoman.

Linda's next move? Leave the road and antagonize the buffalo.

The buffalo were minding their own business on the other side of the road. The first two or three snowmobiles in the column drove past them without incident. Linda was backseat driving her snowmobile. She repeatedly admonished the person in the front to "Watch out! Watch out!" Thank god she was there, or her partner might never have seen the massive brown beasts against the background of white snow ten yards away.

Her partner heeded Linda's warning and swerved away from the animals. The right runner of the snow machine left the road, and Linda and her partner ended up in a culvert pinned underneath. The whole column of snowmobiles came to a halt, and the buffalo stared curiously menacingly at Linda. Supposedly, her leg was pinned under the machine, but she also admits to being so encased in winter gear that she floundered on the snow like Ralphie's brother in A Christmas Story. Either way, I'm sure she scared the crap out of the buffalo when she began to shriek.

Robert was forced to leave their youngest daughter alone in harm's way to calm save Linda. Meanwhile, the Marlboro Man hollered at them to "Get those machines moving!"

"When the Marlboro Man was scared, I knew I was going to die."

Robert got Linda back on her feet, and several men got the snowmobile upright again. The Marlboro Man hustled everyone back on their machines, and they travelled a mile or so down the road before stopping again to assess the damage. The snowmobile was fine. Linda and her partner were physically okay. The bulk of the damage appeared to have occurred in Linda's psyche. Linda informed Robert that "she was done." They made their way back to a quaint little western town, complete with a saloon with swinging doors. I'm pretty sure it was Linda's first stop.

I asked her if she had an aversion to outdoor adventure as a result of the incident. Her response? "I'm fine with the outdoors. I have a major aversion to near death experiences!"

Ah Linda! The embodiment of True Grit.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Snow Days

At 6:15 this morning, I sat in my bed, enjoying the last few minutes of warmth before attacking the day. My eldest son poked his head in the room and said, "I think we might have a snow day."

"I didn't think it was supposed to snow that much."

"Seriously. The street is completely covered."

I immediately clicked on the television. A covered street in a Kentucky county that is more than 50% rural almost always foreshadows a snow day. Most Kentucky counties haven't made the same kind of investment in snow removal equipment as our neighbors to the north. I watched the closed counties scroll across the bottom of the screen. Sure enough, there we were. My son went happily back to bed, and I stared at the ceiling for while before I dozed off too.

I have mixed feelings about snow days. When you first see your district scroll across the list of closings, there is elation. For one glorious moment, you are a kid again with all your responsibilities postponed for a day. Then you remember you are an adult, and reality kicks in. (Unless it's the Monday after Super Bowl Sunday which should ALWAYS be a snow day.)

As nice as it was to snuggle back into my covers this morning instead of facing the single digit temps outside, I know I will pay for it later. That's how the system works. Pay me now, or pay me later.

Now, the kids are all resigned to being back in school. They've just had a long holiday break, and they aren't burned out. Actual learning would have happened today. Instead, they're all at home sleeping or playing video games. There isn't enough snow to do anything fun like sledding or snowman building. Really. There was just enough of a covering (combined with the frigid temps) to make the powers that be nervous about putting kids in those big yellow buses. The grass isn't even covered. Plus, it's too darned cold to go outside anyway.

Later, when we tack this day onto the end of the year, it will be June. June is beautiful in Kentucky...lots of sunshine...temps in the mid 70s. The kids are done by mid-May. It doesn't matter when the last official day is. They are done in mid-May. Everything after that is cat-herding.

One school day of actual learning traded for a cat-herding day in June.

Another universal's better to pay as you go because when you wait, you pay with interest.

Friday, January 1, 2010

No Resolutions, Baby!

I don't make New Year's resolutions. I learned early in life they were a recipe for making me feel bad about myself when I didn't follow through. And honestly, if your resolution was something you were actually going to do, you would have done it already. You wouldn't need a flippin' resolution. You would just do it.

In 2008, I wrote my first novel. I didn't resolve to write it. I sat down one morning in February and started writing. I didn't stop until I had finished. In January of 2009, I started my blog. resolution. I registered for a blogger account and started writing. This year I plan to finish a new novel I started last month. I haven't resolved to finish it. I'll sit in front of my laptop and write.

Quit resolving to do something, and make like Nike. Just do it.

If you don't really want to do it, and you know you won't, for Pete's sake, don't resolve to do it. Should I quit eating hamburgers? Yes, I have no gall bladder, and I should definitely cut back on fried foods. Will I stop eating hamburgers? Hell no! So why in the name of all that is holy would I resolve to do it?

The only pledge I will make this year is the one I found on The Bad Pitch Blog.
Pledge to Make a Mistake: Promising yourself you'll f-up in 2010 comes with two
benefits. Accepting you'll make a mistake allows you to focus on the actual work
instead of achieving perfection and dreaming up horrible consequences stemming
from the mistake. But more importantly, you'll learn something. It's not whether
or not you'll make a mistake, it's how you handle the mistake that will
ultimately set you apart -- for better or for worse.

That's a pledge I can keep. And I like the use of the word pledge rather that resolve. Pledging holds more weight, like a vow. Resolving is something Congress and City Council do. We hereby resolve to blah, blah, blah.

So get out there and do the things you really want to do. Don't resolve to make your dreams happen. Make them happen. Then take a load of guilt off, and quit lying to yourself about the rest.