Monthly Archives: March 2013

Reading With My Boy On Easter Eve

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It was a first, a first on this Easter Eve afternoon.  Sure, we’ve read to our son at bedtime almost every night of the week since birth, but this was the first time ever, on this warmest and sunniest day of the year thus far, that my son and I were to sit down together, both independently reading, side by side, because it was a good thing to do.  He was reading Beatrix Potter.  I was reading the new memoir by Jay Ponteri.  And it was a kind of magical moment, magical, because the reading was not foisted on my son in any way, and it wasn’t part of a nightly routine or a homework regimen;  instead, the boy saw his father reading in the warm spring air, and the boy decided that this must be a pretty cool thing to do with one’s time.  After Dad had read solo for awhile, continuing even after the boy had brought him a freshly baked cookie from the kitchen into the yard where Dad was settled into the camping chair in the shade, the boy said, “I’m going to go inside and pick out a book.”  I said all right to that.  Minutes later he came out with a whole stack of Beatrix Potter, from which he chose The Tale of Pigling Bland, the longest of the books in the stack at 80 some Beatrix Potter pages. We were moving our chairs around, negotiating between sun and shade. I found a good spot, and the boy ended up leaning up against the mossy trunk of a gigantic and ancient oak.  And there we read.  He devised a reward system whereby a little badminton or frisbee with Dad followed every 20 pages he read.  But the play served only as a brief respite; after about 5 minutes he’d say, “Shall we get back to reading?”  Then we’d read some  more.

It was heavenly.

This reading with my son gave me hope for him unlike almost any other experience we’d had together in his seven years.  One of my most vital dreams for my son, beyond what sport or what instrument he will choose, beyond which girl (or boy) he will love, beyond which school, vocation, or career he falls into, is that he learns to love to read.  I know in my English teacher soul (bolstered by recent research about what literature actually does to the brain) that the benefits that come with a love of reading will be profound and lasting. I don’t want to jump to conclusions with a premature celebration; one afternoon with a book under a tree is no guarantee he will be a lover of books any more than he will be a lover of trees.  But it’s a start.  It’s a good start, and I’ll take it.

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Filed under Parenting, Writing and Reading

Combustion Deconstruction: Some Musings on the Fate of a First Novel

I started writing my first novel when I was, perhaps, 28 years old, I finished it coming out of an MFA program when I was 32, revised it when I was 35, began a long, demoralizing, tedious, and ultimately unsuccessful agent search, and then, when I was 40, I put the novel in the proverbial drawer where it sits today. I’m 48 years old.

Even before my first novel went officially into that drawer, I had begun my second novel and chipped away at that, slowly, over about a decade. That novel finished, I felt like there was no way I would have the energy to do with it what I had tried to do with the first, so I made the decision to go the unconventional route (which has actually become pretty conventional) and I self-published my novel, Monster Talk, with iUniverse.

I keep peeking at that first novel where it rests inside the drawer. Actually, it’s not in a drawer. It’s in a box on my desk labeled Combustion. That was the title I gave the novel, named after the book’s central premise, that at the turn of the 21st century, the planet’s population finds itself living through an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion. That was the idea that started the ball rolling. It’s a comic novel and the germ that spawned this particular premise was indeed the great comic faux documentary called Spinal Tap. Before I knew what I was doing, the initial question was about extending the phenomena of SHC beyond the deaths of a few unfortunate heavy metal drummers to a world-wide epidemic—somewhat akin to the current Zombie apocalypse fad, perhaps. Spontaneous Human Combustion, while it literally happens over and over again throughout the plot of this thing, works as a sweet and quirky little metaphor representing a whole host of modern problems. But actually, at the heart, at the core—the novel is really about sex.

So, again, I keep peeking at this box with my first novel buried inside. I’m proud of the book. I think it deserves a life; it deserves to be read—but I’m conflicted. It’s hard to reread, not because I don’t like it, but because it’s almost twenty years old! And partly because, (this is sad) I have become in my middle aged years less of a dare-devil than I was at 35, even conservative in some ways (although not politically), and while a certain amount of mellowing is probably a good thing, in the world of writing fiction I think it’s potentially terrible. I want to be able to read those naughty bits in public. I want to be fearless like I was when I was 35—because, I think, while the Spontaneous Human Combustion element is clever, fun, effectively rendered, the sex, and the main character’s hang up and obsession with sex, is the most strikingly accomplished thing about this novel—if I’m allowed to use the word “accomplished” to describe my own writing.

Ultimately, I’m in a quandary about what to do with this baby. It’s difficult to let it go. It’s difficult to say, “This thing here that I poured my heart and soul into over the better part of a decade, this thing I’m seriously pleased with despite the fact that it was written by a different Michael Jarmer, I’m just going to let it sit in a box.” And it’s also maddening to think about picking up that whole agent search thing anew. I’ve thought of a few things, a few possibilities, and I’ll run through them here, for my own edification, sure, but also as a list of potential opportunities for other writers still in the same boat with first novels in boxes, and maybe too, to give readers of this blog an opportunity to weigh in. I could:

1. Look for a small press to publish the novel. This is an avenue I did not fully explore when I was trying to place the book with an agent. I think small presses are likely publishing the best writing out there and are perhaps less constrained by market influences, more interested in art.
2. Self-publish, again. Whether I chose to go with iUniverse for the second time or some other vender, bookbaby or lulu.com for example, my first experience was mostly a positive one, and, with a minimal investment, I can accomplish the most personally pressing goal—to make the work available for those who want to read; it would be no longer sitting in a drawer or a box.
3. Revise, drop the artifice of the SHC hook, use the sexy material to draft a completely new animal. This sounds painful but potentially interesting and rewarding. This might be fodder for another blog later—but what is this impulse to create a hook, no matter how clever, no matter how successfully executed, as a vehicle for the real material of the novel? This, I think, is a central impulse of mine as a fiction writer, one that perhaps might be worthy of scrutiny.
4. Go all post-modern and write a piece of non-fiction about writing a first novel, the text of which would include the complete first novel, with commentary along the way about the process, non-fiction narrative connecting real life to plot devices and characters, and self critique. There’s a genre buster for you. What kind of book would that be? A weird one: Combustion Deconstructed.

So, there you have it. I’ve fleshed out the dilemma around what to do about the first novel in a box. It’s one of those things about which I feel a decision must be made. Writers with similar experiences, please chime in. Readers of the fiction and the bloggery of this particular writer, chime in. I’m interested in hearing your stories, your opinions, your thoughts, and/or your questions.

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Filed under Publishing, Self Reflection, Writing and Reading

Of Being Tired of Writing About Teaching

I think, at least for now, I’ve exhausted my brain and my “pen” regarding teaching, issues of public schooling, educational crisis, education reform. I know I will come back to it. It’s inevitable. But for the time being I feel like anything I have to say now will be a repeat of something I have said earlier and I run the risk of sounding like a broken record. To sum up: teaching hard, class-sizes too big, public schools good, underfunding public schools bad, standardized testing bad, intrinsic motivation good, extrinsic motivation not as good, cell phones bad, closing schools bad, fire bad, Frankenstein good.  See, already in my summing up I have started to drift away from the topic.

So what else is on my mind?  What’s worth blogging about? Feel free to chime in or to cast your vote.

I’m going to stop beginning every one of my blog entry titles with the word “of.” Of is so on or about yesterday. I want to write about writing.  I want to write, in particular, about what to do with my first novel, which is, in this very moment, sitting in a box. I want to write about reading.  I’m excited about the new book by David Shields called How Literature Saved My Life and I think I could write a blog entry or two about how that has been true in my life as well.  Maybe there’s a meditation on a key book or two.  Hell, I might even write a review. I want to write about music.  Maybe I’ll write about what I said I wouldn’t write about, my band and its endeavors.  Hell, I might even write a review of the new They Might Be Giants record, or the new David Bowie (which I do not yet possess), or the new Eels (which I do not yet possess)  Maybe I’ll write about records I would like to possess.

I’m afraid, but I would like to write about religion–and, being afraid, that’s probably the sign that I should write about religion.

You get the picture.  It’s time to transition.  It’s time for a change-up.  It’s time for a new conversation.  I don’t know if this is true or not, that topic consistency might be a selling point for a blog site, the thing that makes people keep coming back, but I think I’m going to risk losing a reader here and there in order to sufficiently entertain my own bad self.  I hope you all stay along for the ride.

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Filed under Education, Introductory, Publishing, Teaching, Writing and Reading

Of a Long Teacher Work Day on which Only a Third of the Work Gets Done

Today we were given a teacher work day on this last day before spring break. Awesome for students because they get an extra day off. Awesome for teachers, at least in our district, because the work day didn’t even fall at the end of a grading period, but rather, a couple of weeks before. So maybe, if a teacher played her or his cards right, one might even expect a little time, potentially eight hours, for something called “planning,” or for what some circles of educators call “creating curriculum,” or for a still more unusual animal identified as “collaborating with colleagues.” Sounds like absolute teacher nirvana. Sign me up!

I spent eight hours today looking at student work.  Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to have the time to do it.  But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there was just so much of it, that at the end of an eight and a half hour day, I found myself finished with about a third of the student work that had piled up. What I did not do:  I did not, at the end of that eight and a half hours, put it all in boxes to cart home with me over spring break.  No.  I left the unfinished business in my classroom.  It will be there when I get back.  The only way in which I will be “doing work” during spring break might be in a moment like this one–where I am reflecting on my work life because I want to, because it might be valuable for me to do so, personally valuable, or valuable to others who share the same kind of experience or who are interested in the day-to-day lives of teaching professionals.

My work day, while productive, was disappointing.  I feel bad–insofar as I got through one mountain of stuff and left another larger mountain of stuff to come back to a week and some days later.  Yes, I could have avoided the whole problem by not assigning the work in the first place, but then I’d feel bad for not asking my students to do what I think they really ought to be doing to make strides as readers and writers and thinkers.  Teaching in this day of the underfunded public school so often seems to be about choosing what to feel bad about.  You can’t feel good about everything; in this climate and in these conditions, it’s simply impossible unless you are a mindless Pollyanna.  I can feel good about a lot of things.  I think I have a positive relationship with most of my students.  I like my school.  I love my subject matter.  I love the craft and art of good teaching.  I really respect and enjoy my colleagues. But our situation in public schools is dire. Skeleton crews in buildings.  Programs cut.  Schools closing.  Overcrowded classrooms next door to empty classrooms.  No new hires.  Billions of dollars in budget shortfall.  Head start cut. School days cut.  Expectations higher than ever. Amidst all of this horrible news, today’s work day was a blessing–a blessing for which I could not take full advantage because I was so inundated.  Input favorite expletive here.

Here’s another thing to feel bad about.  I’m six years away from being able to retire and it will be a sad day to leave the profession in a shambles.  I try to think about how things may get better.  I am hard pressed to imagine a scenario that would positively turn things around in the short term.  I try to imagine the state of public education getting any worse than it is now, and I shudder.  In my bleakest moments, I think of the end of public schooling and what a disaster that would be for our democracy.  I think of the hundreds of kids who cannot be reached and cannot be helped simply because our system is so strained and resources are simply just not available to them.  It’s ugly, friends.  It’s ugly.  And yet, there is still, for me, so much joy in this work.

So, this is, ultimately, what I choose to feel bad about.  I feel bad about not getting as much done today as I would have liked.  I don’t feel bad about not taking the work home with me.  I feel good about that. I cannot change the current state of affairs, so I can’t feel bad about that either, about what I can’t control–but because I’m writing here in this blog about my experiences as an educator, I hope that this might go a very small way toward raising awareness and adding to the other voices of educators who are kind of tired of being picked on, and of parents who are frightened about the educational prospects for their children.  I can feel good about using my voice in this way, shouting the barbaric yawp, so to speak.  Meanwhile, I’ve got nine days to rejuvenate my soul and my brain, to prepare myself for the final stretch, the relatively break-less run toward summer break, the days of which I am not counting.  I can feel good about that.

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Filed under Education, Teaching

Of A Twelve Step Program for Young Cell Phone Addicts

I’m serious.  There’s not a day that goes by any more when I don’t tell a student or several students, sometimes repeatedly in a single period, to put their cell phones away.  And lately there hasn’t been a week that’s passed without a serious discussion around the lunch table about the need for some sort of school wide policy about phones.  My school does not have such a policy; it is up to teacher discretion–and that causes some serious angst–because not all teachers handle it the same way, and that inconsistency makes it more difficult for teachers to establish a no-tolerance expectation.

Some teachers confiscate immediately.  Some teachers warn and then confiscate. Some teachers ignore the problem altogether–and either this causes them serious anxiety as they are exceedingly bugged but feel helpless to do anything about it, or they have become, as a survival technique or coping mechanism, totally oblivious to the problem.  It’s a battle many teachers don’t want to fight. Some teachers harass and harangue or appeal to students’ better selves by using a thing called reason. The messages are: I see you doing that, I’m bugged, it’s rude, it’s impeding your success in this moment, so put it away.  This tends to be my mode of operation, a strategy which, woefully, doesn’t work very well, at least in the long term.  They look at me, sometimes sheepishly, they apologize, sometimes sincerely, they put the offending thing away, and then 15 minutes later they’re back at it.  Even less effective, but sometimes amusing, is a habit I have developed lately of simply inserting the phrase “put away the phone” at random intervals during the lesson, sometimes mid-sentence.  “Ezra Pound was one of the first and most famous, put away the phone, translators of ancient Chinese poetry.” I can’t ignore it–because that would be wrong.  And I can’t make myself into a confiscator because. . .because. . .(I’m stalling because this is complicated).

I don’t confiscate because I’m indignant about the idea that I would even have to do such a thing with high school juniors who are several months away from adulthood. I’m incensed that this has become ipso facto part of my job description. I don’t confiscate because it is not my style or my way to be a hard guy.  I don’t confiscate because, if it becomes a struggle–as it often does when students feel a sense of entitlement around their devices or they have come to believe that using their phones at any and all times of day is a basic human right–the resultant adrenaline rush, the anger, the power struggle, these things make me feel shitty and throw off my entire teaching game.

Cell phones didn’t used to be such an issue.  Only a few years ago, the biggest problem, and it happened infrequently, was an inappropriate ringy dingy in an inopportune moment.  Easy problem to fix.  Don’t answer it. Turn off the ringer. Solved. But today, with the advent of the smart phone and all its glories, students are receiving incoming digital information in the way of tweets, facebook posts, instagram messages, and texts–incessantly. They are being bombarded by this stuff 24/7, in every waking moment, and they are loath to pull themselves away, incapable of resisting, obsessed with any little blip on the screen that might amuse them or flatter them or titilate–while I’m trying to teach them about ancient Chinese poetry.  They are addicted, plain and simple.  They need a twelve step program.  They need interventions.  They need a detox.

Here’s what the sharing at the meeting might sound like.  Feel free, if this is your problem, or your kid’s problem, or your spouse’s problem, to use it as a script.

Hello, my name is _____________and I am a Smart Phone Addict.  I admit I am powerless over my cell phone and that it has made my life unmanageable.  My cell phone owns my dumb ass. I spend more time looking at a screen than looking at faces of real people who are in rooms with me.  Even on dates, I am more present with my phone than I am with my date. I am constantly distracted.  I can’t seem to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time–but I can look at my phone for hours at a stretch, anticipating every notification alert with a kind of euphoria that I can’t feel any other way.  While waiting for a message, I like to stroke the phone, tenderly, as if my loving attention will bring other notifications faster.  I sleep with it under my pillow.  The quality of my sleep is suffering, my grades are suffering, real face to face conversations about any substantive topics never occur, my English teacher is always angry at me. I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself could help relieve my suffering.  I have made a decision to turn my will and my life over to God as I understand God. (Or, for the atheists: I have made a decision to control my own behavior through conscientious, deliberate practice).  I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory and find that nothing about the Smart Phone makes me smarter.  Nothing about the cell phone makes me a better person or helps me live a better life. I am ready for God as I know God (atheists: I am ready) to remove all my defects and shortcomings.  I’ve made a list of people I’ve harmed, insulted, ignored, dismissed, and angered by my incessant cell phone usage.  I will make direct amends with these people whenever it is safe to do so.  Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps (even atheists can do this),  I will carry this message to other Smart Phone Addicts and practice these principles in all my affairs.  Thank you, brothers and sisters.

That’s what I’d like to hear from some of my young charges who seem to be incapable of turning off their phones.  I would so much like them to open their eyes to the fact that all the kids around them who are NOT engaged in Smart Phone Addict behaviors are twenty times more successful in almost every conceivable way.  In the best of all possible worlds, I would like young people to come to these conclusions and CHANGE, rather than devise some punitive measure (anything from a giant cell phone compactor to a less draconian cell phone ban) to force them to comply. But maybe that’s pie in the sky rose colored glasses.  Goodnight.  I have to get the iPad away from my son so he can take a bath.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Teaching

Of Neighborhood Schools and the Threat of Losing One

No decision has been made yet, but a couple of weeks ago now a letter went out from the North Clackamas School District leadership that the closure and consolidation of my son’s elementary school, my elementary school 40 some years ago, is on the table for next fall.  Half of the kids at his school would go to other schools down the road, but the other half, the students enrolled in the Spanish Bi-lingual Immersion Program, would bus 10 minutes further down the road to the only other school in the district offering a similar program. Enrollment is down, they say, and my son’s school, in terms of its student population, is running far short of its capacity.  It’s expensive, apparently, to keep the building itself, the physical plant, running at less than its full capacity.  We are to understand that this makes fiscal and logistical sense, that it’s the least disruptive and most efficient choice, that the program won’t expire or be compromised.  At first I thought, well, IF they can keep the same kids together, preserve teacher jobs and avoid class sizes from getting any larger than they already are, about 32 first graders, what harm could there be in a move like this?

I’m afraid on further reflection I see all kinds of harm.

The program in which my son is enrolled is what we call a magnet; district kids from outside the neighborhood and some kids out of the district can apply for acceptance into the Spanish Immersion Bi-lingual Program–but my wife and I deliberately moved into the attendance area of the school even before our boy was officially offered a spot–because we wanted to live close to the school. There was something important, we thought, not just about the convenience of living close by, and not just about the quality of the program, but about the concept of the neighborhood school itself.

Beyond a purely sentimental attachment, neighborhood schools are meaningful places; they can bring communities together, create cohesion and unity, foster a sense of home as being not just the place where children live, but where children learn and engage with their environment. Neighborhood schools have a history, a tradition, and a cultural identity all their own–all tending toward giving young people a sense of stability and belonging.  Especially in a suburban environment like ours where homes are spread out and the business district is full of big box stores and strip malls, a neighborhood school becomes the very center and heart of the community–no other such place exists close by.  It just seems to me like folly to close a successful and effective elementary school, separating kids who have begun this educational journey together into three different far flung buildings, in the name of efficiency.

Our superintendent and other folks in the district leadership held a community meeting at the school and the board of directors held another one in a different location the next evening.  We are told that the closure of the school is not a foregone conclusion.  But a half a million dollars must be saved.  Actually, six million dollars must be saved–and the closure of our elementary school is 1/12th of the potential solution to the problem.  I can’t help but think there must be other ways to find the money, and I worry that a move toward efficiency now may have some far reaching consequences for our community down the road, that we may never get our school back, and that my son and his classmates will miss out on something that seems to me almost the equivalent of a good program taught by effective teachers: a sense of ownership and belonging and continuity that only a neighborhood school can provide.

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Filed under Education, Parenting