Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing without anxiety . . . and/or pants

The latest book by my bedside is Mark Salzman's The Man In The Empty Boat.  I knew you'd ask, so I thought I'd just tell you straight-up.  It's a memoir - because that's what I read . . . and write - about Salzman's TEN YEAR battle with anxiety and writer's block.  TEN YEARS!  And he's married to a successful documentarian (Jessica Yu who directed the 1996 Academy Award Winning documentary "Breathing Lessons: The Life & Work of Mark O'Brien" in case you just saw "The Sessions", with very naked Helen Hunt and very prone but beautiful John Hawkes.  And if you haven't heard of Jessica Yu, "Breathing Lessons," or "The Sessions," put down the laptop and drive to your nearest multiplex, buy a ticket and absorb the awesome. And if you haven't seen the documentary, click on the link above and watch it!  It's only 35 minutes long. This endorsement has been brought to you by Crazy People Love Determined Heroes Who Just Want To Have (Love &) Sex.)  Anyhazoo, (long detour, sorry) Salzman's book was an impulse buy last summer and for obvious reasons (to me, at least): I write and often struggle with the blockage of writing, I also have low-grade but constant anxiety, INSPIRE THE FUCK OUT OF ME!  So far, Salzman hasn't disappointed.  He is self-deprecatingly funny in a quiet, subtle way.  He is also easily manipulated by his kids, and I can relate to that.  Case in point: he decides to rent an office space to work on a novel he had begun two years before; now, he has a toddler who guilts the soul out of him without even trying; when he tells her goodbye (on his one of three days away from her) she cries, he comforts, she tells him goodbye, and then - just to torment himself - he lingers outside her bedroom door where he hears her quote "The Lion King", saying "You said you would always be there.  But you're not."  Damn, girl!  That.  Is.  Harsh.  Salzman ends up cashing the rental space and sets up shop in his house, where he works in two-hour increments.
Damn, Simba, throttle back the co-dependency!
Long story short: he rewrites his novel (that takes place in freakin' 12th century China, because that's both a huge market and something easy to write about) three bloody times!  I'm mid-way through his memoir and he has had another daughter, his first Jewish-mother daughter (and I can say that because I had and am now a Jewish mother) is now 8, and he still hasn't finished the book!  He has recreated the protagonist in each version.  First, it was an Italian nun.  Then, it was an Italian monk.  At this point it is a Chinese rebel.  In contrast, just so you understand that I am actually nothing like this man, I am happy when I write a blog post of 500 words.  With photographs.  That is the picture of success for me.

So, I've been wondering if I need to commit to this writing thing more and would my husband divorce me if I had writer's block for TEN YEARS, during which time I didn't bring in any money or contribute to childcare?  I fantasize about a little writing shed in the backyard where I could finally spread out all of my books and paper and clutter without having to constantly move it from the dining room to the family room to the attic to the coffee shop to my porch.  Ahhhhh.  That sounds loverly.  I obsess so much over this that I have a Pinterest board devoted to it.  Check it out!  Apparently, I'm not alone.  I re-pin tons of cute photos of sheds (and chicken coops because some chickens really live it up) from other people who also want a writing shed or art studio in their backyard.  What?  No rent, no travel, hell, no pants if you want!  It's in your backyard, who would know?
Can't you just see me, not wearing pants, in there?
But, back to Salzman.  He did write a bestseller about his travels in China, Iron & Silk, so he could rest a little on his laurels.  I am one semester away from finishing my MFA in writing with 4 articles/essays and a handful of local-interest columns under my belt.  I need a cash cow so my husband can become a house-dad.  And that, my friends, is not helping the low-level anxiety.

Man In The Empty Boat image:  http://amazon.com
Simba image: http://fanpop.com
Tiny shed image: http://www.smallgardenlove.com/beautiful-garden-sheds/garden-shed-shabby-chic/

Friday, November 16, 2012

This is not a joke post

As many of you know, I am adjuncting this semester.  Composition 101, a Gen Ed requirement.  And generally speaking, I enjoy teaching this class.  I like the challenge of asking a classroom full of 22 disaffected 19-year-olds who really just want to get an engineering degree so they can make a lot of money to explore literature and their own creative expression.  Maybe I'm a sadist.

This semester has been particularly trying because I am teaching two sections of the class.  This doesn't sound like much and frankly I know people who are teaching double and triple my load.  It's not the work load that has been frustrating - although, trust me people, it hasn't been a cakewalk either - it has been student attitudes.  Allow me to explain.  While I have noticed an increasing trend in college students acting more entitled than back in the day when I was in college, it is one thing to show up to class unprepared one day and another to consistently come to class having no idea what the rest of the class is doing. 

My two classes fit into the classic angel versus devil dualism: 10:00-ers are my angels; 12:00-ers are my devils (with a few exceptions in both classes).  I have complained to my husband about my 12:00-ers often and he assures me that I should have known what I was getting into with a 12:00 class.  "They didn't get their acts together to enroll in an earlier class so they took whatever was left." This, he thinks, speaks volumes about the class dynamics.  Maybe so.  Here's the dynamics of the 12:00-ers I have documented thus far: disrespectful chatting while I'm talking; asking me to repeat what I just said because of not listening; texting; eating; showing up 15-20 minutes late; showing up 15-20 minutes late reeking of pot; distracting other students; distracting from group discussion when student hasn't read the assignment; 6 or more unexcused absences (which is a means to an "F"); failing to turn in one single homework assignment.

As the semester has progressed, several students have disappeared.  Some for days or a week and others permanently.  I'm usually a bit guarded when students ask for exceptions.  I've heard that students will use "death in the family" repeatedly.  Once, a colleague told me, a student gave birth to her child three times in one semester.  (I'm guessing she did not provide a note from the obstetrician.) But, as I have met with my 12:00-ers individually, or read through their often intensely personal essays, I realize that they are not a group of slackers.  These kids have problems of a scale I could not have imagined at their age.  The problems range from sad-but-under-control (emotional distress, low self-esteem) to difficult to handle (multiple kids to support, car accidents, 3rd shift jobs at UPS) to oh-my-god-please-tell-me-you-are-gettting-medical/spiritual/emotional counsel (critically ill siblings, mentally ill parents, physical abuse).  I don't think I'm alone in reporting that students confide more to Humanities professors than any other discipline.  We assign personal essays; what do we expect?  But here's the thing: we are not trained to help these students.  I'm not saying, don't talk to me.  I love listening and trying to help.  I love love love my students, even the fuck-ups who reek of pot every class.  I just wish universities provided more training for us sensitive Humanities types, especially we adjunct profs who get paid a nickle an hour. 

In the mean time, my heart goes out to my students - to all teenagers - who are dealing with life-changing, life-threatening crises, who need support and don't know who to ask, who to trust, where to turn.  Keep going to class.  Keep doing your work.  It will transform you.  You will find community.  It will open doors for you.  You will live through this and you will be stronger for it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Flippin' (for) the bird

I think I have a problem.  A Panera problem.  Don't judge, just listen.

In 2000 I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, an autoimmune digestive disorder which can be irritating and embarrassing at best and painful and debilitating at worst.  I've experienced the gamut and am here to say, something has gotta give!  Today, I take three pills a day to manage my symptoms.  I used to take nine and have a home healthcare nurse plug an IV of mouse antibodies in my arm for three hours every six weeks.  So, things have improved.  But this fall, what with the stress of teaching and having two kids with busy schedules and my own work/school/parenting routines, I've been down and out with abdominal pain a lot.  My doctor is awesome and very accessible, but at a certain point, I just don't want to take more meds.

I'm convinced that I need to change my diet to help with symptoms.  Not because I have read scientific studies or prowled Crohn's message boards. It's more innate than that.  First, I'm weaning off of dairy, which is a stellar pain because ice cream is God.  I've dabbled with soy and almond milk products for years, but cheese, butter, sour cream, oh kill me now!  All of this dairyless dining has driven me to my next love.  No, it isn't chocolate or coffee or even Coca Cola (hmmmnnn, I'm thinking I may have a caffeine issue).  It's chicken.  When my stomach hurts I, for whatever insane reason, must have poultry.  Turkey will do in a pinch.  Funny story: my family members are all vegetarian.  Well, my husband eats fish, but for all intensive purposes, vegetarian.  I once ate a piece of fried chicken in front of my daughter and she shielded her eyes.  It was too barbaric for her.  I get it.  In college, I was vegetarian (because that's when you become a vegetarian, people!).  I eschewed meat of all kind: hooved meat, winged meat, scaled meat, and even meatless meat freaked me out because it tasted and felt like meat.  When my college choir tour bus stopped on route at a McDonald's for dinner, I sanctimoniously unwrapped my Granny Smith apple and jar of natural peanut butter.  Yum.

Because of my past and because no one in my family eats poultry, I've never learned how to cook a bird.  Happy Thanksgiving.  Here's some Tofurkey!  Hence my Panera problem.  I am seriously craving the bird, any bird, and Panera is everywhere near my house, near my doctor's offices, on route from school.  Poultry is my drug; Panera is my pusher.  Curse you, Panera, and your Turkey Bacon Bravo! (I actually ate one of those the other day and stomped my foot on the ground after sinking my teeth into the sandwich.  Stomped my foot with intense pleasure.  Stomped like I've been stranded on a lonely island eating crickets and this was the best goddamned sandwich delivered on the backs of angels.)  I have frequented Paneras so much lately that I secreted away the leftovers by folding over the bag and shoving it behind the tofu in the fridge.  I was ashamed for my husband to see. 
A loving photo of the Turkey Bacon Bravo by an adoring fan
It seems I'm not alone.  While perusing the interwebs for a photo of the Turkey Bacon Bravo sandwich, I discovered that a lot of people have taken loving photos of this very sandwich.  Not all of these folks are foodies with blogs.  These are average schmos in love with a sandwich. (The secret ingredient is meth.)

For whatever physiological reasons - tryptophan, salt, meth -  poultry brings my belly comfort and joy during a season of excess, despite my disapproving family. 

If loving poultry is wrong, I don't want to be right.

My daughter sees a symbol.  I see delicious finger turkey sandwich.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Warning: Content Is Completely Inappropriate

This was a weird-ass week.  Weird as in public nudity or inappropriate public behavior weird.  For me.  Maybe you had more of a Leave It To Beaver week.  Yes, I realize a very poor taste joke could easily be inserted after that last sentence.  I am above such things.

To begin, our next door neighbors had their enormous old oak tree cut down.  This tree was big, people, so I'm guessing it had to have been at least 80 years old or more.  I have mixed feelings about the tree homicide.  On the one hand, it was lovely, provided oxygen for my kids, and its long branches reached over our backyard so far that my husband installed a tire swing on one.  My big dog, Lucy, would take flight off the deck and chase squirrels through the yard, up our lanky dogwood and into the welcoming branches of the oak, where I'm certain they had nests.  But here's the other hand: a lot of leaves and a lot of twigs and bigger branches fell into our yard regularly, especially after a storm.  We live in tornado country, so this tree always threatened me and the safety of my house, my family.  Our neighbors felt the same way, so they had it executed.  A truckload of mulch from the carcass was dumped behind our house for our yard and playground (and another blog post).

With the demise of the grand oak tree came the tree removal service.  I want to call the practitioners arborists, but I'm not sure that is accurate since they kill trees instead of protecting them.  I should have known this was a bad sign.  When I greeted my daughter the morning that the tree folk (that is what I have chosen to call them; it sounds a bit like wood nymphs, only more masculine) arrived, she told me she had been watching them out of her bedroom window and the man in the cherry picker waved to her.  I hadn't had my first cup of coffee yet.  Then my husband joked with me that the tree guy in the cherry picker owed him a dollar for seeing him get in the shower (we have frosted glass on the bottom pane, not the top because honestly how many guys on cherry pickers are stationed outside the bathroom window on our second story?).  Still, I hadn't had my caffeine.  After my husband and the kids left for school/work, I went into the bathroom, started running the water for my shower, ripped off my t-shirt and stared back at cherry picker dude.  And fell to the floor like I'd been shot in the gut.  Can't say my family hadn't warned me . . . twice . . . that there was a man in a helmet right outside my bathroom window, looking right at us.
Tree Dude is looking at you  (image from Sonomatree.com)    
The day before, my husband stayed home with the kids on their off-day.  Half the tree had been cut down and he thought he'd ask tree dudes for some of the mulch.  The first time he wandered outside onto our deck he stopped short when he noticed one of the tree folk pissing into the truckful of mulch.  Maybe next batch.  That was in our alley.  At 10:00 in the morning.

So, I blame the tree folk - not all tree folk, mind you, because I'm not into generalizations - for three inappropriate daytime occurrences, but the last one is all on its own.  This one will skeve you out, so I'm a-warning you.  On my commute down to the university where I teach, I usually have a wait at a four-way intersection.  It's not a particularly long light, but there are four sets of turn lights.  Some commuters might find this tedious.  They may get bored, whip out their phones or perhaps their manly appendages.  That certainly seemed to be the case in the car in front of me.  Seriously.  I didn't see flesh because I was in the car behind him, people.  But, what caught my attention was some furious jerking.  Then I caught his expression in the side-view mirror.  Oh man, I really was not trying to be a voyeur.  This was uncomfortable.  It was also 9:30 in the freakin' morning on a crowded street.  WTF?  Dude caught my eye, or maybe just the wrenched expression on my face, the light changed and he took off.  He had a baby seat in the back.
                               Car Dude did NOT look like this 
     (image from Side View Mirror Project; Erik Dahl, photographer)
After this amount of weird, I'm looking forward to an uneventful weekend of G-rated movies and hot cocoa.  Oh, and seeing friends at the Spalding residency (which I am totally crashing)!

Please share some weird, inappropriateness with me so I don't feel so all alone!!!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

No Means No. Unless You Talk To Me Long Enough. And Have An Israeli Accent.

I am a first degree sucker. Or "sucka" as my friends on the street like to say.  It's really counter-intuitive because I'm really a skeptical critical thinker.  On paper.  But get me in a one-on-one situation and I'm like a kid who's been bribed with candy.

Case in point: Roofers.  They are all over my neighborhood, slipping flyers in mailboxes, under doormats, in the thin space between front door and jamb (which is a little too close to breaking and entry for my taste).  They also like to knock on doors at the awesome hour of dinner o'clock.  I'm trying to help my kids with homework, prevent the dogs from eating one another and defrost a pizza when yet another roofer comes to the door.  I've actually chosen my roof guy - he's a close friend of my neighbor - but these door-knocking roofers are talkers.  In order to keep my house from imploding, I go outside to talk to them, but just for a minute.  I can't leave the kids and dogs alone for too long; dogs and homework will be eaten.  But these salesmen aren't interested in a short and snappy conversation.  They want to tell me about my shingle options.  They tell me how they can squeeze more money out of my insurance company.  They talk roof lingo, literally and figuratively over my head, like that is supposed to impress me.  Do I leave, offer an excuse (my dogs are ingesting one another), say, "Good day, sir!"?
(Image courtesy of Vinteeage.com)
No, I keep talking.  I give them my name.  I give them my phone number.  I stop short at the social security number and Visa security code. (I'm not an idiot!)  Anything to make them go away.  Alas, this only feeds their hunger for business, so now I get more drop-bys, phone calls, flyers.  Why can't I just say no?!  Why do I need to please these strangers?  In my attempt to let them down easy, I lead them on!  Whoa, flashback to 10th grade.

If you think that my malady is limited to door-to-door roofers, think again.  I give money to door-to-door solicitors who are ex-felons!  Yep, you heard me.  Every summer they come to our neighborhood dressed sharply and talking smooth.  Picture someone as convincing as this:
Damnit, Baldwin, those blue eyes get me every time!
I don't know if their non-profit organization is legit and I don't know if the magazine subscriptions will actually come.  I don't want a magazine subscription.  I DON'T READ PEOPLE MAGAZINE!  So, in order to let them down gently, to escort them off my front lawn - because really, I do want them to succeed and some guilty part of me feels responsible, like my $20 will be key to their success - I hand them cash.  No, no subscriptions, thank you.  Here's some guilt money to please let me get back to that weeding I was so enjoying.  Sometimes I see my neighbors three doors down chatting outside when this happens.  They look at me as that warning their parents told them about.  They shake their heads.  When the nice young man in the crisp button down shirt approaches them, they firmly shake their heads at him too.  While smiling!  I slink back inside after throwing my gardening gloves into the bushes.

Yesterday I made my annual trip to the mall for my underpinnings (that's right, my dainties), passed by the Dead Sea Salts kiosk, and shuttered.  Thankfully no one was attending it.  I spied the sink in the middle of the rolling cart and remembered.  Two years ago, I was on this same trip, on my way to Vickie's Secret, when this gorgeous young man approached me.  He was short, olive skinned and had a thick head of black hair.  What skincare products was I using?  Who cares!  He lured me to the kiosk, despite my protestations.  The next thing I know, he's rubbing a salt over my hands like a lover and instructing me to rinse off at the sink.  Next, he takes a smooth file and burnishes my thumb nail to show me how much better this is than nail polish.  It burns and I wince, but he talks to me about coming to America from Israel and I am charmed.  He stops and looks at me.  "Are you Jewish?"  And I actually tell him, yes, I am (because I am), even though this is incredibly invasive.  He says we are like brother and sister and smiles at me while my stomach melts into a puddle.  I know it's a hard sell and he's rockin' it like the King of Dead Sea Salts.  Once he's finished bruising my nail, he offers me products.  I gently refuse.  He says, since we're like brother and sister, he'll give me a discount.  I say yes and walk away with a manicure kit I will never use.

So, my friends, my latest tactic is this: hide.  If you come to my door and the dogs bark for more than 10 minutes, text me.  I'm home, but I think you're a solicitor and I'm standing behind the kitchen door, unable to see if you are you, a roofer with thick mustache, an ex-felon with a dynamic grin, or (strangely enough, since he worked at the mall and didn't travel door-to-door) and gorgeous Israeli brandishing manicure equipment.  This is another tactic I may try: