Thursday, December 29, 2005

Offbeat Xmas Part I: “Unhappy Hellidays”

Alan and I drove from Oakland to Las Vegas (8.5 hours) in the hopes of finding a Christmas that matched our moods this year. 

Our first choice was the ghost town Bodie, but it sits off the highway on a 10-mile dirt road that is ostensibly covered in deep snow, so we changed our destination to Portland, Oregon. Then we got the weather reports that Portland was just as deluged with rain as we were, so we decided to hit our old friend Las Vegas.

We had a pretty noneventful ride down the length of California. Near Barstow, I saw a sign for a ghost town called Calico, which got me in a frenzy of excitement. I could get my ghost town after all! Alan promised we’d hit it on the way back [insert ominous oboe sounds….]

We arrived in Vegas just after midnight on the 24th, which means we checked into our nondescript, non-strip, non-casino hotel on Christmas Day itself. 

Christmas Day included some random gambling (craps being our game), looking forward to that evening for the first event that would mark this as an Offbeat Christmas. : the Unhappy Hellidays exhibit at MTZC. MTZC is an art gallery that advertises “No wine, cheese or children.” Here’s the description that attracted us:

"Unhappy Hellidays" (First Friday 12/2/05 - 1/2/06) - Not everyone embraces the Hallmark spin on this time of year. MTZC's disturbing December exhibit is a group show that allows no fewer than 23 artists (each with their own coal-filled sweat-sock nailed to the mantle) to explore the depths of cynicism & misery some people experience during this month with the highest suicide rates. FREE

We enjoyed such pieces as the Last Bath, a photograph showing a woman’s legs in a bath of blood, and the row of yucky sweat socks nailed to the mantel. When we arrived, one of the socks had already been filled by Santa, with a flyer illustrating sexual acts. Cybele, the co-artist of this latter piece with Mark T. Zeilman, is shown here in front of it in her holiday evening gown. 

Get ready for the Oakland connection: Cybele used to live in Adam’s Point! I can’t explain her terrible oversight in choosing to leave Oakland, but she was wonderful and it was great to talk to her.

We also really liked a piece by Lorraine Leslie, pictured at the top of the post. A Dia De Los Muertos-esque Santa pulls a sobbing, terrified little girl onto his lap. The painting is framed with a “candy cane” that is smeared with blood. Lorraine was there too, and she wore a t-shirt that read, “Waste your life. Be an artist.”

Also present was Michael Kruis, who owns the gallery next door, and Brian Paco Alvarez. We had a great time with these guys and their eggnog; it was the perfect way to spend this particular Christmas evening. Here’s a picture of, from left, Cybele, Michael, Brian doing an Imitation of Christ, Lorraine and Alan.

We were so glad we went to this showing. For all the times we’ve gone to Las Vegas, this was the first time we ever connected with real people (other than the dealers’ perennial “Where you folks from?”) who actually live real lives there.

It was also the night we got some terrible, terrible advice [oboes sound again].

Next time: Alan gives blood in Las Vegas.

. . . . .

Sunday, December 18, 2005

White Coat

Well, I had been wondering how to transition in this blog from the utter sadness of losing Debi to more mundane topics. But what has arisen is another big moment in my life: watching my partner Alan graduate from the academic portion of his P.A. program to the clinical rotations segment.

To mark this transition, the school holds a White Coat Ceremony where the students actually receive their white coats for the first time. Over the last year and a half, I have watched Alan work harder than I have EVER SEEN ANYONE WORK IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

My heart was full to bursting to think of him successfully negotiating this insanely hard program… and doing it with a great GPA and earning the support of everyone around him. His classmates voted him the class speaker, and sitting in the audience with his parents watching him deliver this speech was so moving that I had to bite my fist and control the little rags of breath that were threatening to push me over into full-bore sobbing. (As it was, I wept very discreetly and in the photograph here of me with him—in his coat!—and his parents, my mascara hadn’t run… and it wasn’t even waterproof! A miracle.) 

His speech was perfect: laugh-out-loud funny, surprising, and of course with a thoughtful message and all the poignancy that such a situation demands. As a writer, I loved it that part of his “thoughtful” part was about the power of words… how someone in the medical field can build up or destroy someone with just a few words. Patients lay their hearts in their hands and present them up to their health care providers, hoping that the news back will be something they can handle. 

Another main theme was how everyone around the students wants them to succeed, and he told an anecdote about volunteering at a diabetes screening in the Fruitvale neighborhood where people gladly offered up their fingers for clumsy and multiple stabbings, knowing that they were helping PA students learn how to do it. 

Man, was that ever an impressive speech, and of course peppered with Alanisms that made everyone laugh (I saw one guy half-rise out of his chair and bury his head in his neighbor’s shoulder, he was laughing so hard). And afterwards, he got a huge and extended standing ovation. 

As many people told him, and I wholeheartedly agree, that was the best speech they’d ever seen. He was just so real, as one person said. In fact, one of his jokes was to mock the speechiness people usually deliver. Leaning into the mic, he lowered his voice and talked about how we are leaving behind the past (pointing behind him with his finger), and moving into the future (again, gesturing) and that this was the “equinox of our education.” (Alan said he was really proud of this equinox line and originally intended to use it seriously, but at 2 a.m. in the cafĂ© the night before graduation while he was pounding out the speech on his laptop, he realized how ridiculous it was.) 

I have never felt so proud of someone that it actually felt painful. I wonder what it feels like to be a parent and watch those graduations. Someday I’ll need a big prescription of Valium – and I know just the person to prescribe it!

. . . . .

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Debi's infectious grin

Here's a better photo of Debi, showing her in the grip of her seismic grin. This is what ran in the Chronicle and is in the front window of the bookstore.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Unexpected goodbye

Here’s a post I never, ever expected to make: my dear friend Debi Echlin has died unexpectedly.

I first met Debi in 2000 or 2001. She was doing the Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk, and I met with her to interview her for a Montclarion story. I went on a hike with her and her dog Molly—and soon enough we were hopelessly lost. I didn’t mind a bit: the conversation was wonderful, Debi was incredible, and it was a great excuse not to go back to the office. After finally plummaging through the woods, we found a trail that finally led us back to the car, rueful and laughing. We had a meeting of the minds that day and became fast friends.

Debi was the owner of Second Edition at the time, a new and used bookstore. Later, she bought out her two partners and changed the format of the store to stock only new books, changing the name to A Great Good Place for Books. The name apparently harks to a book that provides a model for “great good” meeting places for community—something Debi took seriously with her store. It wasn’t just a bookstore; it was a place for people to come together. It’s no surprise that the store launched and supports dozen of book clubs. 

When my Oakland Hills book came out, Debi staunchly supported me, giving the book prime placement in the store, on the front left corner of the table as you first enter. It was also on the cashier’s counter. What an amazing, supportive friend she was.

I confided in Debi things that many of my friends don’t know. As a mentoring, loving personality, with wisdom and depth from years of being on this planet as a good person, Debi encouraged my confidences and in turn shared with me some of her battles and hopes. I loved her and can’t believe she’s gone, so irreparably taken from us. And when I say us, I mean myself in my own selfish craving for my sweet, fiery-haired friend again, and us: Montclair, Oakland, the community, the booklovers. 

I wish I had the chance to take just one more hike with her. I had been thinking of calling her for just that purpose earlier on the day I got the news. And we had talked of going to Ireland in the new year together: a gift of her time I will never get to enjoy. How great to have one last ramble over the hills with her, with Molly jingling away in her dog collar. I miss you, Debi.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Off to wine country

Ah, Napa. The place where I (hopefully convincingly) detect tobacco or chocolate in my wine, where I swirl the glass and look at the “legs,” and where I stick my schnozz down deep into a glass and pretend that when I inhale with gusto I know what I’m smelling for. The first time I ever went tasting was with my friend Amanda, years ago, who was the bartending instructor at the New England Culinary Institute: she hipped me to all the nuances but I’ve since forgotten.
I can say, however, that this here discriminating palate can instantly tell a Bud Lite from a Sam Adams.
I hit Napa this last Friday with Daron and Edgar who were visiting from Denver (last seen on this blog in their Halloween costumes). I couldn’t believe how pretty Napa is in autumn, because the grape vines turn color just as if they were maple trees in Vermont! The whole landscape was reddish, ochre, golden… I was in love.
Despite a well-meant turn off the beaten path that rendered 2/3 of the carload nauseous, we had a great time hopping from winery to winery. Napa is a lot less crowded this time of year. We hit V. Sattui (one of my favorites for the deli and picnic grounds), St. Francis (didn’t actually taste here; walking off the carsickness), Ravenswood (one of my favorites for its gorgeous logo), Schug (the name intrigued), Sebastiani (can’t come up with another parenthetical that has nothing to do with wine), and tried to hit Christian Brothers, but apparently the brothers lost the faith; there’s a culinary school there now. Alas we didn’t go to Hess, where I love to visit the art gallery with the on-fire typewriter (have you noticed that I choose wineries with focuses other than on wine? I’m like the people who go to Las Vegas and never gamble).
I do like wine; in fact, there have been several choice times in the last few months where a big glass of Cabernet Sauvignon was like the nectar of the gods to me. And what a beautiful loll that produces….
Photo info:
top: view from St. Francis
next: Daron, left, and Edgar tasting at V. Sattui
left: Edgar pores over the wineries map before we leave
below: Statue of St. Francis at his titular winery. Although I'm not Catholic, I like this saint because the animals liked him.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Hairdresser malapropisms

I went for a cut and highlights this weekend with a woman who was utterly charming. Many amazing things came out of her mouth, and I silently made a point of memorizing two of them. First, she told me with a straight face that a particularly rough situation she’d been in was a Catch-20/20.
Later, she told me that someone’s child’s autism could possibly be traced to the fact that “she took a fertilizer” while pregnant. While I initially thought a toxic manure pile was to blame, I later figured out she meant “fertility drug.”
And now I have blonde streaks in my hair.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Best Oakland graffiti

Now then!
I am intrigued by this cryptic diagram overseeing a vacant lot near the West Oakland BART station. Who or what are the Butt People?

I was in West Oakland trying to photograph the BART train as it sped by on the elevated trackway. I can't now remember why I was trying to do such a thing. I was pretty intent on doing it, remember climbing on top of my car to get a different angle. But as the BART crashed by (surprisingly often, given how long I have to wait for a train at MacArthur station), the protective side railings of the track prevented a good photo. No matter. The Butt Person rescued the failed mission.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Halloween continued

Several states away from our Halloween party, Daron and Edgar got dressed up for theirs… That’s Daron’s incredible, incisive rendering of Lynndie England, and Edgar as the tortured. (On a light note, he has great gams.) This is a pretty damn cool conflation of two famous photographs: Lindy with lollipop/cigarette (and exactly this pose, albeit flipped 180 degrees) and the man on the stand believing he is hooked up to electrical wires. A great reminder of folly across the waters. As Daron said, “We couldn't think of a scary costume than to portray what our country has become with the current idiots running the show.”

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I gave a lecture last night at the Oakmore Homes Association annual meeting, on the topic of Walter Leimert. This guy was a 1920s real estate man responsible for the settling of Lakeshore Highlands (Trestle Glen) and Oakmore, among other things. He was a very colorful character, playing practical jokes (sometimes not very nice ones) on people, like preventing his brother from watching the last five minutes of a very heated Superbowl game that he had money riding on (he did this in his 90s, in case you’re wondering how 1920s people had televisions.)
I had a great time. The Oakmore folks are really nice. I’m often in Oakmore since it’s a quick walk across the Leimert bridge for me. And now I can call myself a Professional Lecturer since they paid me an honorarium. Thanks, guys!
I’m also a Professional Artist because at a yard sale once a guy paid $1 for something I made. (I always want to be an artist, but somehow it never pans out.) This piece was made out of the cross that your Christmas tree is stapled to, if you should happen to buy one at Long’s Drugs. I took the tree off, discarded it (no, I’m kidding; I decorated it and decked the halls) and painted the cross. Then I attached little milagros to it with tiny carpet tacks. That’s it. That was my famous art piece that a guy paid $1 for, even with the big nails of the crossbar still sticking out the back!
I’m also a Professional Shoe Model. Long ago, a photographer friend was hired to do a shoot for Bitch magazine, and she in turn hired me and another woman to wear the funky, sexy shoes Bitch supplied. The photographer was, I think, not entirely familiar with the Bitch format, and she was staging the photos by doing things like putting rose blossoms by our feet. In one photo, I’m wearing argyle (!) socks and propping my legs up against a tile mosaic that shows men golfing. The other “model” and I kept trying to suggest more lurid, perhaps Bitchy poses—we would pseudo embrace, etc. We wanted to do things like have one of us place our high-heeled boots on the other’s shoulders while sitting facing each other, but instead we got more flowers. In a combined fit of boldness and shyness, I took off my shirt (no bra) –but kept my back turned towards the camera! This was in Lakeside Park, by the McElroy fountain, and I wonder what the joggers thought was happening. Anyway, Bitch magazine didn’t like the “sweet” feel of the photos and paid the photographer a kill fee. Bummer.
My very first job was cutting articles out of the newspaper (to go into subject files for the reporters’ reference), so I guess I’m a Professional Scissors Wielder. Alan was once in a focus group where he had to drink beer, so he’s a Professional Drinker. If anyone out there is possibly reading this blog – my one lead is my cousin’s girlfriend Lynette, although Mike Chorost said he looked at it once—what are you a professional at?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A morbid Martha Stewart

Since everyone is my family is really, really good at painting, quilting, basket-weaving, carving and/or cabinetry, and I am terrible at all those things, I have to make up my own sort of crafts. These fall under the loose category of Halloween Manufacturing.

The first craft to discuss is the Hands of Death that Lead You to the Door. Here's how I cooked it up. I saw that the Oriental Trading Company offered a dozen vinyl hands for like $6. In the photograph, the hands looked perfectly rounded and I assumed that they were full-on rubber hands. But rubber does not vinyl make, my friends. I learned that the bitter way. The hands, when they arrived (hilariously, in a clear plastic bag), were hollow. So, putting that Yankee ingenuity to use, I filled them with water and put them in the freezer. This actually added the nice element of the hands being ice-cold to the touch. I had also purchased a dozen orange glow sticks for the express purpose of inserting one into each hand's, uh, hand, so that when I lined them up, they would lead hapless trick-or-treaters right up our steep staircase and to the candy. And that's what happened!

The next craft is the Tombstones a la Home Depot. I had to buy an eight-foot by five-foot sheet of thick styrofoam. It was huge. I asked the Home Depot staff to cut it down just so I could fit it in my car. Their box cutters only allow 2 centimeters of knife to poke out; they're the equivalent of safety scissors with rounded edges. But we managed. At home I used a regular kitchen knife (I suppose it's dull now) to cut out tombstone shapes. Recommendation: do this outside, as lots of little styrofoam shrapnel is released during the cutting process. Then I spray-painted them gray. One interesting thing to note is that the force of the spray paint actually pushes in the styrofoam a bit, which gives the "stones" a weathered, time-beaten look. Then I used a thick black marker to write 1800s-y epitaphs on the tombstones. Finally, I used a screwdriver to make a hole in the bottom of the tombstone, which I pushed a short dowel into. The other end of the dowel drives down into the ground, so the tombstone can stand up in the yard. Be careful when pushing in the dowel because it wants to rip through the front of the tombstone (thicker styrofoam makes this less likely). I made three tombstones (see the really tall one in the very back, with the circular headpiece?) out of half of this sheet; I will make three more next year. The other two were from last year, when somehow I was able to buy a smaller sheet. Those colorful skeleton figures are from a Day of the Dead celebration several years ago: Alan made the one on the left and I made the one on the right.

We had a Halloween party on the 29th. I rented an 1800s costume from a costume store, and Alan was a cow. We had a costume contest and awarded these very cool trophies. The tall one was for first place, which was won by the woman dressed as Frida Kahlo. (Her name is Tamsen and she is named for Tamsen Donner of the Donner Party! How could she not win?!). The second prize of the Dog Buddha was won by a couple dressed as Shrek and his wife.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Neighborhood proofs

Today I looked at the printer's proofs for the Oakland Neighborhoods book and OK'd them. Pretty fascinating to hold a mock-up of a book in your hands. The proofs I got from Arcadia for the previous book were not bound like these were. It makes a cool psychological difference!

It looks like I will have the shipment of books in time for the Nov. 19 launch party. There was a little nail-chewing on this timing aspect, but I asked the printer to Fed-Ex three copies when the book is ready (the rest will arrive by truck), so that if worse came to worse, I'd at least have a few copies to pass around.

Now it looks like I'll have 1,003 copies to pass around.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Being Loudy

I've been thinking all Frenchish lately. Besides remembering the modified "C'est la vie" of my old French teacher, I was last night trying to tell someone that my favorite vegetable was haricots verts (sp?) because they are so darn skinny and crunchy. (His favorite was broccoli.) My third French link in as many days was remembering something that happened to Alan and I in August. We were trying to get Coke out of a machine and wouldn't you know it, we fumble a coin and it rolls under the machine.

Now, in the U.S. when you drop a coin it's at most a quarter and oh well. In France, it was a 2-Euro coin, basically $2.50, so we were on our hands and knees trying to fetch it. It was too far back to reach, so we stood back up and Alan started trying to move the Coke machine. I wasn't aware that we were causing any kind of commotion (we were alone in a hallway of a shallow mall outside the train station at Versailles), but all of a sudden this guy comes out into the hallway from one of the shops and demands to know what we are doing.

"We dropped money," is what I tried to say, but I didn't remember the verb for "dropping" and instead used the verb for "falling." (In retrospect--this very minute, in fact -- I'm thinking that the verb is laisser tomber, to let fall. So I maybe wasn't that far off. Oui?)

So, the employee's eyes widen and he is asking me, "You fell?" He is worried about Le Litigation. "No, no," I say. "The money." It takes a while to sort out, but finally he understands.

He looks at us both and says in English, "And this gives you the right to be so loudy?"

It's clear we are being scolded, but it's pretty hard not to laugh. I hastily apologize (always scared of being the Ugly American) and he helps move the machine. We get our 2-Euro back and there's another one under there as well, so he is rewarded for his trouble.

Alan and I have both tried to assign the nickname Loudy to each other, but it just isn't sticking. Maybe because although we are Americans with all the boisterous crudeness the world expects of us, deep at heart we are really actually quiety.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A writers' community

I belong to the San Francisco Writers Workshop, a writers group that has been in existence since the 1940s with circulating membership. Currently, our leader is Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kabul, East of New York.
I love our group. Since writing is such a solitary activity, it’s great to get together with a bunch of people on a weekly basis and share our heartaches/successes/slog tales. It’s also good to get some feedback on a work in progress from serious writers.
Our group has spawned some well-known writers, like Tamim; Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner; Joe Quirk, author of The Ultimate Rush and a forthcoming book on evolutionary biology vis a vis the genders; Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt; and Maria Strom, author of Rainbow Joe and Me.
There’s also been a spate of debut novelists getting publishing contracts. Kemble Scott’s book SoMa will be published by Kensington (I just read it and it’s a page-turner); Melodie Bowsher’s book The Embezzler’s Child will come out from Bloomsbury; and my novel tentatively titled A Woman of Ill Fame will be published by Heyday.
Our group has many, many talented writers, including Gary Turchin, and I know their turn is coming up next if there’s any justice in the world.
A note on the post titled “Please Excuse Prior Post”—that post was apologizing for a test post that appeared with the enigmatic text of simply “bbb.” While I had deleted the post, it simply wasn’t disappearing, so I decided to let it lay and address it… when of course, it then decided to disappear. Ah well. C’est la vie. Or as my high school French teacher used to say so astutely, “C’est la vie, c’est la guerre; ce n’est pas une pomme de terre” (That’s life, that’s war; it’s not a potato.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Excuse the prior post

"BBB" isn't really meaningful except to slobbering infants testing out sounds. That arose out of my frustration at crafting a really long, heartfelt post called "Would-Be Squirrel Rescue" about my attempts to shepherd a squirrel out of the road, only to hit "publish post" and have it disappear. Agh! So I did a test post (the BBB) which I now cannot delete because it oddly does not show up in my dashboard, though it does show up on the live blog. Whatever. I continue.

About the squirrel: turns out he was already dead, even though the breeze of passing cars made his fluffy tail stand up and waggle as if he were tormented, which is what made me do the U-turn and come to his aid. With my windshield sun screen, I pushed his rigor-mortised body out of the road, thinking it was the least I could do. As we approached the grassy median, his body jammed into the curb and no amount of maneuvering could get him up that slope, so I used my index finger and thumb of my left hand to grab his little back paw (where I thought fleas and rabidity were least likely to reside) and swoop him up to the median. I used that same hand to do the father-son-holy spirit thing you see the pope do, said "take care" to him, and got back into my car, studiously avoiding use of my left hand. I unrolled the window (right hand) and dangled my left arm out, driving fast enough that I hope the breeze would blow the germs right off!

In my original post, I talked a lot about my former animal rescues (most notably, a pigeon with a broken wing -- I saw the car that hit it or vice versa is more accurate-- that I held in my arms, fighting my own tears and its writhing while I begged the 7-11 clerk to call my friend and come get me. My friend did, we went to the bird rescue place and supposedly the pigeon is today flying with a healthy wing!) and how I have a certificate on my wall about my bravery in showing a skunk how to safely exit our basement.... oh well. My heart bleeds for my animal friends, and that was the gist of it.

The Oakland Heritage Alliance house tour was today, and it was great. Nothing so wonderfully lurid as walking through people's houses in a publically-endorsed event! It's funny to see the houses all carefully staged... and then you see in the Craftsman-tiled shower that they are using Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo. Or they leave up their family photos so you study the faces and wonder where they all are right now... at a cafe while strangers wander through their house? It was all for a good cause, to raise money for OHA.

And now I am off to read the rest of my friend Scott's cool novel Soma, which will be published next year by Kensington.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Historic history

I'm working right now (deadline breathing down my neck, so of course I decide to blog instead) on an update to Beth Bagwell's wonderful Oakland history book Oakland, Story of a City. This reference book is the be-all, end-all of Oakland history.

But it was written in 1982 and since then we've had a big earthquake, a firestorm, a Strong Mayor initiative, a dot-com rise and crash, etc. etc. My job is to update the book for the last 20 years. Right up my alley: I love Oakland, and I love history.


Ostensibly, yes. But I'm finding I have a real bias for old history. Historic history. What happened here in the 1970s is perhaps a little less compelling. Give me streetcars and ostrich-plumed hats and I'm in ecstasy. Give me Broadway Auto Row and I'm working rather than playing. But I can't complain. I'm honored that I was asked to do the update, and it is compelling to learn about Oakland's more recent history. I moved here in 1991 -- just in time for the firestorm--and so there's a lot I don't know.

For instance, during some research yesterday I came across these cool pictures of our City Hall just after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The quake battered City Hall so badly that there was talk of tearing down the gorgeous 1912 structure, which was the first City Hall in the U.S. to be built as a skyscraper. Preservationists fought to save the building, and today it rests on seismic pads in the basement, which will move around and allow it to sway like a winsome girl in a daisy field next time the Big One hits.

Anyway, Bagwell's book is currently out of print -- the Oakland Heritage Alliance sold out of its print run. Which is good news, because it shows that Oaklanders love their history and will buy this book, and because as soon as the update I'm working on is ready, we can start fresh with a new print run with a new cover. (While I love the book, the cover could use a new design.)

Oakland Heritage Alliance is a very cool group that we can thank for many wonderful things still being around. It's not just a nostalgic, let's-love-the-past group; the members actively push for preservation--ironically, by attending City Council meetings in the City Hall they once saved!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Here's one of the reasons I love teaching. The other day I walked into the classroom and confessed to my students that I was in a really good mood, for no apparent reason. One student nodded knowingly and said, "It's the serotonin."

I teach community college English as an adjunct (adjunct="temporary" instructor who may teach up to 25 years without benefits and the security of a contract. I'm at four years and counting.) It's a complex job. While I love what a colleague once called the "performance aspect of teaching," I can't stand the outside-the-classroom stuff: grading zillions of essays, calculating grades, holding office hours and hearing the pitiful stories of students who just HAVE TO PASS the class despite the fact that they stopped coming, never turned in essays, failed all the quizzes, etc. I also don't like confronting students about plagiarism, which is a rampant problem administration doesn't always seem to care about.

What I do like is introducing students to things they might not have read otherwise (my two English 1A classes are right now reading Me Talk Pretty One Day), getting them interested in history and literature, breaking them into groups to work together and hopefully make friends (sad to say, it seems like unless if you're at a residential college with dorms, it's hard for students to develop those friendships that are really what college is about...) Some of my happiest moments have been hearing students talk about going over to each other's houses and knowing that that contact arose because I put them together to do a task. A colleague once told me that those friendships also increase retention -- a problem where once the semester gets underway and essays are actually due, people begin to drop out.

I think my main underlying philosophy of teaching is that if I can make reading fun, and make students want to continue reading after my class is over, then I've done my job.

Because let's be honest. I can't undo the decade or so of teachers shrugging and promoting students to the next grade even though they can't write a complete sentence and don't know how to make their subject and verb agree. I can't, in a three-month semester, make students understand the nuances of irony (one of my saddest days was using The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 and seeing the students not "get" the Onion article anthologized in it.) I can't turn their chunky, nonparallel sentences into paragons of eloquence with our twice-weekly classroom time. What I can do is turn them on to reading by selecting real books that I read and enjoy -- with the hope that they will continue to ferret out reading and by pure exposure pick up the writing tools that I and my peers picked up by the same method.

I can't tell you how many times students have said to me, "I never read an entire book before."
This is from community college students, who (hopefully but not necessarily) graduated from high school! The one book that has most often elicited the tacked-on postscript to that startling statement -- "until I read this one!"-- is Kindred by Octavia Butler.

And speaking of school, I now have to go there.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Inaugural nothingness

I've been putting off beginning a blog, because you have to have that first entry that -- to my mind at least -- should be about something important. And I've got nothing much to offer today. Had a great time at Litquake last week. I can't wait for it to be next year so I can go again! Litquake is an enormous, week-long literary festival in San Francisco. The M.O. seems to be hour-long readings with six readers, so each person is only supposed to read for 10 minutes. Perfect for our short attention span society.
I was surprised at the size of the crowds -- reading is NOT dead! I read with several friends at Litcrawl, a Saturday night where, much like a pubcrawl, you move from venue to venue to hear readings scheduled in blocks to suit your walking (staggering?) pace. The whole thing is just so well engineered -- one of the best volunteer-organized events I've ever seen. My friend Tamim's wife Debby Krantz is on the volunteer board, and she deserves huge kudos for making this all so seamless and enjoyable.