Thursday, January 29, 2009

Facebook Connections 1

I did one of those "25 things about me" lists on Facebook yesterday after I'd been "tagged" so many times I couldn't remember who had tagged me. It was one of those serendipitous connections that I love so much--and that I'll be writing about next--that I geared my English 101 classes around lists and poetry this week. Once you start looking at and for lists, it's amazing how prevalent they are in our communication. But that's another post.

Shortly before I made the list , I was thinking how much time I waste checking my Facebook. And how very shallow most of it is. As I tell my students, we must always be aware of our rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, genre, stance, media/design). I've got Facebook friends who were students in the first class I taught (fall 2007), colleagues from the university, homeschool friends from around the country, people from my church, a sister, a son, someone from Chicago who may be an offspring of a distant relative of my ex-husband, and my ex-husband's niece (who is my niece too, damn blood). Some of these people are connected. Most aren't. It's a smorgasbord of people who know me in different facets of my life, who play different roles in my life, and some....well, I'm not sure why they haven't unfriended me. How deep can these connections go in such a disparate world?

When I wrote the 25 things. I was honest, but I didn't bare my heart. Not really. Facebook isn't a diary. As I read the lists my other friends posted, I felt honored to receive them. I knew the things they listed were important to them, things they wanted the people in their lives to know about them. We take such risks on these networks. We know real people will be reading what we write, but let's face it. We're writing in our own homes, at our solitary computers. It's not like meeting over a glass of wine and spilling 25 things about yourself. You get to think about it. And you don't have to drive home wondering if you should have called a cab.

So now I'm swinging back on the pendulum between shallow and significant, but not just because I wrote the 25 things, nor because my friends did. It's the responses I got. One friend said she only got halfway through mine before she "lost it" and she would have to read it later. Others told me the ones they agreed with.

And that niece, the one who is my ex's brother's daughter? She's the only one in ex's family who will have anything to do with me since he left me. After 30 years of being family, she's the only one. She invited me to her wedding last summer though. And she wrote this on my 25 things list: "Did I ever tell you how much I like you? Cause I do. And I think my mom shares your sentiments about #9 + 15..." And those words were not shallow, nor were the tears I shed when I read them. Sometimes a lot can happen with just a few little words on a computer screen.

What do you think? Shallow or significant? Do you consider your audience when you write on social networks to the point that you self edit what you say about the weather? Do you have a story about a time when you didn't care?

I have a lot more to say about social networks, but for today, I really just wanted to share the story about connecting with my niece.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Caught Your Attention Today?

I often give short, prompted writing assignments to start off my classes. Yesterday I handed out notecards and asked them to write one sentence about something that caught their attention in the past 24 hours, and they were to be very descriptive. (I think I got this from singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer.) My morning class loved this prompt so much they asked to do it every Friday. My afternoon class--the one that has 6 girls and 19 guys--whined about having to do it at all. So I thought I'd share a few of the best ones--totally without their permission--and later in the quarter, if their writing sensei has taught them anything at all--I'll share some that are amazing.
  • I was sound asleep at 4:30 in the morning when a gurgling scream woke me. I flew out of the bed and ran to check on my daughter (8 mths old). When I peeked at her in her bed she was covered in throw up. That got my attention and woke me up real fast!
  • The freezing cold weather. I walked outside and I thought I was tackled by the winter warlock.
  • The weather. It was so cold this morning I noticed even the small puddles of melted snow on the car mats inside the car were frozen. When I left the house the car thermometer said it was 4 degrees F. Quickly it began to plummet as we left the garage 3 degrees, 2 degrees, 0 degrees, -1 degrees. The first thought that came to mind is "OK you can stop now!"
  • This guy texts me and burns me up with his clingy nice attitude and he reminds me of a wussy kitty!
  • Even though class isn't until 8:30, I awake to the sounds of my dad banging a wrench at 4:35, and with each bang, it becomes clear: the furnace is off.
  • The first sharp breath of ice cold air as I left the warmth of my house at 7 am to drive five minutes and feed the Hallmark giant by buying a birthday card.
  • Pulling into the parking lot, I saw a teal colored van with an air conditioner hanging out the side window with a bed and TV inside.
  • A giant blue monkey with a small gold machine gun came to my door this morning and he was wearing a sleek polka-dotted suit with a pipe in his mouth.
What caught your attention in the past 24 hours?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Proust's Madeleine Redux

Maria came into our novel-writing class yesterday carrying a fragrant bag from Subway. As she unwrapped a big sandwich she said, "I don't eat meat...except pepperoni and salami." I said, "So you're saying you're a vegetarian who only eats pepperoni and salami? I know I'm going to use that in a book someday!"

She said she can't give up pepperoni and salami because she comes from an Italian family and they remind her of her grandma. Then she dug into her sub and the teacher went on to talk about how logic belongs to the character and may not make sense to anyone else. And I just knew Maria was sitting in her grandma's warm, moist kitchen, eating something rich with tomatoes, garlic and spicy meat that definitely didn't come from Subway.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How Can You Get Lucky?

Richard Wiseman, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, wrote a book called The Luck Factor, which relates his findings on why some people are lucky. He found that people who are observant tend to be luckier than people who are oblivious. If that's the case, I should be very lucky, because I'm one of the most observant people I know. I remember walking with a friend at a park and stopping to pick up a cicada wing off the pavement. "How did you even see that?" he asked. "I couldn't see it even when I saw you bend to pick it up." I don't know. I constantly look for things and patterns and connections; things that are where they're supposed to be and things that aren't; things that can be explained and whatever is needed to explain the things that can't be explained, to put the world in order. I notice people doing things they shouldn't--like the day I saw an elderly woman slip the disk-shaped bone out of a piece of beef in the meat case. She tore right through the plastic on top, quick as if she'd done it many times and popped that round bone--the kind with the marrow in the middle--out of the steak and into a baggie in her purse. I see dropped paperclips and tiny earrings and pennies. Writing on bathroom walls and misplaced keys. Sometimes I think I see too much.

The only other person I know who notices things like I do is my 17-year-old daughter. Last night she said, "Guess what I saw on the bathroom floor today?" I didn't want to guess, but she didn't wait for me to anyway. "An empty granola bar wrapper and a packet from drink powder that you pour in a water bottle." I waited for her meaning to become clear. She continued, "So I looked in the feminine waste dispenser and found just what I expected: a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a baggie. Somebody in a school of 3000 people had eaten lunch in the bathroom stall." I made a disgusted, yet compassionate sound. "Can you believe somebody in a school that size would have to eat lunch in the bathroom?" she said. "Surely out of all those people you could find somebody to eat lunch with so you don't have to eat in a bathroom stall. Even weird kids have friends in a school that size."

Every quarter I pass out notecards and ask my students to write one line about something they've observed in the past 24 hours. They come up with some pretty crazy stuff, and I keep the cards after the exercise.

Here's a poem I wrote about needing to be observant during a particular period in my life. What have you observed lately?

Since my husband left in October
I’ve been collecting pennies.
abandoned disks
copper-colored Lincoln icons not worth the bend-over for most people.
They’ve become cheap 97% zinc prayers…
(Jesus loves me, this I used to know)
prayers that I’ll be OK, just OK,
or that they’ll add up to the cost of a few cans of cat food
if I’m not
I don’t ask for much these days.

I decoupaged an old square salsa jar to hold my pennies—
words: green, sign, wise—
photos: a woman playing a guitar, Granny Smith apples, a praying mantis, the sun,
a voluptuous nude woman caught in tree branches, a bird flying, a woman flying.
All my found pennies go in it
after I polish them,
touching them to remind them of their worth.

One day I stepped off the shuttle bus at The Academy
and saw a penny on the pavement.
I bent in front of the bus to pick it up
but it was stuck in the asphalt
embedded from a summer day
when the tar was hot.
I couldn’t pry it loose with my fingers;
I wanted a tool,
my keys,
a dime,
a ballpoint pen
to dig up an edge so I could get it out,
take it,
put it in my pocket,
hear it clink when it hit the bottom of my jar,
but I was embarrassed
aware of the bus driver waiting to leave the parking lot,
make another circle around the campus.
So I left it there.
A week later as I waited at the bus stop
I looked for the penny.
I looked all over, keys in my hand,
ready to pry, claim my reward,
certain I remembered where it had been,
watching for the bus, ashamed
of how much one cent meant.

It was gone.
One copper penny and it was gone. Maybe…
maybe it was worth something to someone else.
The shuttle came.
I got on.
Other days I found other pennies
and paper clips
and pens—
many useful things have little worth.
But that penny,
that penny trapped in its tarry, asphalt prison,
bearing the weight of tires and feet…
I hope that wasn’t the one penny that stood between being OK
and being a penny short of OK.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Proust's Madeleine

I wish I could remember where I recently ran across a reference to Proust’s madeleine. Intrigued, I googled it, and then I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. Maybe I had and I wasn’t paying attention. Who knows? It’s not as if I sit around reading Proust, although if you’d like to think I do, I’m fine with that. If only I were that high-browed. I’m never even sure if I’ve pronounced his name correctly—not that it comes up often in my conversations.

Every writer must dream of writing such a deep and enduring metaphor, one that has coined a phrase used in psychology, “involuntary memory.” Proust writes that he was having a bad day, so his mother gave him a snack. He took a spoonful of tea with some crumbs of madeleine floating in it, and suddenly he felt much better. He spends a significant number of words describing his internal search for the memory that tiny sip of tea must have evoked. Eventually he ties it to his aunt having given him bites of her madeleine years before when he was a boy.

Who hasn’t experienced tasting something that transported you back, in both memory and feeling, to another time and place? Often these are fleeting, whispy moments; we barely pause in that place out of present time and space, that place where we are the ghost watching like Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Past. Since I learned about Proust’s Madeleine, I’ve been on the prowl for such an experience, but they’ve been like that lone fly that buzzes and buzzes around your head until you finally get up and find a flyswatter or a section of newspaper, only to have the fly mysteriously disappear until you turn your light off to go to sleep and then just as you’re about to drift off you hear that buzzzzz….you get the idea. I was getting discouraged, thinking maybe my madeleine would never come. And then on Christmas Day, a peanut did the trick.

I invited my usual “family” of friends over for Christmas Dinner. We were eating at 3:00 and I didn’t want people to starve while they waited, and yet I didn’t want them to spoil their dinners, so I put out a basket of peanuts in the shell so they’d have to work for their snack. Phil and Joe were the first ones here. They poured coffee and eggnog for themselves and started shelling peanuts. Phil commented that I’d bought unsalted—totally unintentional on my part—but they still ate them until it was time to make the gravy.

After everyone had gone home and the dishes were done, I grabbed a peanut on my way out of the kitchen, thinking as I did that I might as well just put them out for the squirrels. Who likes unsalted peanuts? I cracked the shell, pulled it apart with my fingernails, slipped the peanuts out, popped them in my mouth and chewed.

All of a sudden I was standing outside a three-sided tent in the yard of the courthouse, which stood in the middle of the square in the small Iowa town where I grew up. Packed snow crunched under my boots as I waited in line behind what seemed like hundreds of other kids. It was probably only five. In the tent, sitting on a big chair, straw covering the ground around him, sat Santa, and soon I would sit on his lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas.

Winn Geeseman played Santa every year. His daughter, Valerie, was a year younger than me, and even though by the time I was seven I recognized him, he was magical once he put on that red suit. (I certainly wouldn’t have sat on his lap if he hadn’t been wearing that costume!)

I wasn’t one of those kids who asked for big impossible things like ponies or red sports cars or bringing people back to life. I always asked for what I knew was possible—clothes, go go boots (never got those), a crying baby doll (she gave me away several times after I was supposed to be in bed asleep), a Barbie with bendable legs. (I was the first girl in first grade to get one. I took it to school for show and tell and Sherry Ryan broke one of the knees so it flopped instead of bending. I was devastated. I still haven’t forgiven her.)

After we had taken our turn on Santa’s lap, his helper would hand us each a small brown-paper bag half-full of hard candy—ribbons, raspberry-filled, a couple of small candy canes--and some unshelled, unsalted peanuts. We got the same bag of candy and peanuts at the church on Christmas Eve, after the annual nativity play. I wonder if they were the leftovers.

Although we didn't live in a little house on the prairie, Christmas was the only time we got nuts, except the little black walnuts we picked up in the fall. Somebody would give Dad a fruit basket with big, shiny red Delicious apples and basketball sized navel oranges — not like those nameless little sour apples Mom bought in three-pound bags or the wormy green ones we stole from the neighbors’ trees and nuts in the shell — pecans, fancy English walnuts, almonds. They were so fun to crack open with the silver nutcracker and they tasted so exotic, coming as they did just that one time a year, probably from very faraway — New York, maybe, or even California. And they weren’t selfish with their meats, like our home-grown black walnuts.

Oh, and then there was Grandma’s peanut brittle, shards of hard, amber candy impregnated with Spanish peanuts. I didn’t like it as well as the chocolate-covered cherries and fluffy white and pink divinity she made. And two kinds of fudge — regular chocolate cut into squares and the maple fudge that she put into tiny fluted paper cups. And caramels, creamy and chewy at the same time. One year when I was helping her make candy she told me about how her mother had to invite several friends over to make divinity. Because they had to beat it by hand, one woman couldn’t beat long enough for it to set up so they took turns beating the egg whites, sugar and corn syrup into divinity. If the weather was too humid, sometimes they never could get it to peak, and so they’d just make sticky disks of candy, failed divinity they called it. (I only remember one year when my grandma’s divinity failed in spite of her electric mixer. It was never mentioned.)

It’s surprising how the taste of one unsalted peanut can bring back so many memories. I still want to write a Proust’s Madeleine poem, like the one below, written by the late Kenneth Rexroth.

Have you ever experienced your own madeleine? Would you be willing to channel your inner Proust and share it here?

Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
    Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
    Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
    Slow horses and fast women.