To live and die in New Orleans

22 Sep

Over the summer, I spent two weeks in Austin, then a few days back here in SoFlo, then joined my husband in his former home of New Orleans for a four-day work trip.  Austin is the fastest growing city in the United States, and I can see why. It’s full of Texas charm laced with live music, barbecue, and taco trucks. To satisfy the influx of new residents, Austin floats at the top of the trends. South Congress St. is sprinkled with cupcake shops, thrift stores, and fashion boutiques. It’s shiny and clean and declares its sense of coolness as you walk by. I found the hipsters to be friendly and helpful and I left thinking Austin was a great city to visit. Looking back, the highlight was seeing Cyndi Lauper perform the entire She’s So Unusual album live at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. That venue was real Austin; the rest of my memories have to do with the other transplanted journalism advisers who were there with me. Now in my rear view mirror, Austin feels more idealized and less alive. It delivers what’s advertised, but for me it’s too much image, not enough heart.

It’s hard to live (or die) in the Big Easy

In contrast, New Orleans’ tourist campaign promises debauchery and a history lesson, but the reality is less beads and textbooks, the truth as thick and murky as the Mississippi.  While the Colorado River in Austin is clean enough to kayak and swim in, the muddy Mississippi, heavy with silt, leaves you clinging to your seat on the ferry. Walk west from the riverbank to the Marigny, and you’ll see people sitting on their porches and chatting up walkers-by. People know their neighbors here, the neighborhood that houses the Bed and Breakfast where we stayed. It’s also the neighborhood that’s escalated in property value the most since the storm.

During our three night stay, we walked regularly down Frenchmen St., home to at least 10 live music venues, most of which host jazz. While Austin claims to be the live music capital of the U.S., I learned the focus was more quantity over quality. A guy + a guitar singing pop music covers equaled “live music.” Every single band we heard on Frenchmen St. injected life into traditional jazz and stirred the dormant loneliness in each of us. The loneliness that once you feel it, makes you feel connected to everyone in the room. Louis CK recently called it our forever empty.

On our first night in NOLA, we ate dinner at local favorite Adolfo’s, a Creole-Italian upstairs nook that only accepts cash. On our way in, we ran into an attractive couple also dining there. He smiled and apologized for his girlfriend who was glued to her phone and stopped in the middle of the stairway, blocking our passage. Later we watched him dine with friends without her. The next night he stood next to us at the Balcony Music Club while we listened to a woman sing Sade. Just 24 hours later, we heard him joking with his buddies at the bar at the venue Vaso. The night before at the same club, we talked to a man with a cognitive disability who we had trouble understanding; that man was now playing trumpet on stage with a brass band. After the song ended, our jovial guy at the bar headed for the stage and took his normal place with The New Orleans Swamp Donkeys. He’d simply given stage time to that gentleman; this was his band, and he was the star trumpet player. That is the beauty of NOLA. Four days in the same neighborhood and we were a tiny part of that community. Aaron felt that way when he lived there, and for the first time I understood exactly what he meant.

The community builds around ruins, around cobbled streets many tourists perceive as dirty. The roads and sidewalks in New Orleans burst with tripping hazards: potholes, cracks that become near ravines, and ever-shifting pavement.

They say the city is sinking. The dead cannot be buried in the ground because of the high water table. People who can afford it have loved ones buried in above-ground mausoleums that house several family members. Once the body of one decays and the remains settle to the bottom (which happens quickly in NOLA humidity), another family member can be added to the top.

The dead do not stay buried here.

Holt Cemetery, land of the rising skulls

My husband took me to what has been deemed a “pauper’s cemetery” or a makeshift public burial ground for those who cannot afford the large stone tombs or community mausoleum plots. photo(34)

You walk through overgrown grass and weeds and handmade grave markers, stones sinking into the earth. You see messages of love and tribute scrawled in Sharpie on a hand-forged cross and a tree stump with a hand-carved epitaph. Synthetic flowers garnish mulch, rocks and garbage bags that house loved ones’ remains. The oaks send down arms of moss to cradle these graves. photo(35) photo(36) photo(37)

Walking through this cemetery you feel the love and loss at its rawest surface. That’s how everything in New Orleans feels. Charmaine Neville, who survived Katrina’s flood on a roof top, spoke to the crowd at Snug Harbor as if she held her community inside her raspy voice. On the night we were there, she called up a stone-faced 14-year-old girl to play bass with the band like a pro. The 17-year-old boy next to us filled in on drums. Sister to the famous Neville Brothers, Charmaine wants to share her stage with young people. She urged a 16-year-old from Seattle visiting with a volunteer group to come down and sing with the band, but she was too nervous.

“We start young here,” she said, after noting the drummer started playing at 5, the guitarist at 7.

Charmaine did her best to make the 16-year-old comfortable. She encourages anyone in the audience with musical abilities to be on stage with her. She has the way of making everyone feel a part of her show, just like her city takes you in and makes you its own.

The higher the humidity, the more you dig in

People in Austin complained about the humidity, but I didn’t get it. Compared to the rest of Texas, it’s steamy I guess. On July 11, Austin was 100 degrees with 25 percent humidity. Meanwhile in New Orleans, it was 78 degrees with 90 percent humidity. Here at home it’s regularly 90 degrees in the summer, but the humidity can vary. You never completely accept the unbearable days. In NOLA, the high humidity hovers and residents have no choice but to settle in. To accept the swamp.

The swamp’s the thing.

When connecting with a community is a choice, it’s easy not to choose. Something about the humidity in New Orleans hangs on you, the ghosts of its past, the struggles of its present. Even as a visitor, you start to embody it. The tourist campaign for the city promises a party, and if you never leave the French Quarter at night, that might be all you find. But if you spend a few days in the real neighborhoods of the Crescent City, you’ll find the community is a living organism that rises despite its geography. Despite the river that tries to swallow it. To live there requires one to connect and to create. The image outsiders have of the city is a lie. The truth is dirtier than Austin, but it’s real. You can tap into the arteries that lead to the heart of New Orleans. In Austin I was just looking at a pretty face.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell”

3 Jul

In the season six finale of Mad Men, Don Draper is making a pitch to Hershey executives that the chocolate bar is synonymous with affection. He threads a familiar yarn about his middle class father who rewarded his yard-mowing with a Hershey bar.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell,” he tells the executives with authority.

Don Draper is always in control of the story. He’s spent his whole life creating that narrative. His career in advertising was built on telling the story people want to hear.

Only it’s not real. It’s a fabrication that tastes like the rush of sugar candy. After the initial buzz, all you can taste are the artificial flavors. After too many Pixy Stix, you feel sick and full of regret.

Draper didn’t have the stomach to control the campaign anymore. He interrupts the satisfied executives with the truth that he was an orphan raised in a whorehouse. He ends his anecdote explaining that the Hershey bar was “the only sweet thing in my life.”

*******

Today the art of professional branding has crossed over into our personal lives thanks to social media. We think we’re in control of the narrative because we craft it so carefully, but is what we’re saying true?

After spending two weeks with journalism advisers as an Association of News Editors (ASNE) fellow in Austin, Texas, I was reminded how much of journalism is listening. The talking heads and hyper-posters seem to miss this. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the less I feel I should talk. This works against my extroverted talky-talky nature. I had to work at this. What is natural for me is listening to people’s stories. But the writer in me needs to write it down.

[The] facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.

                                                       ********

That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

-Maya Angelou

In April, I started interviewing people for a personal project on community. I’ve been transcribing these interviews into my Moleskin and trying to decipher them for patterns. This project is a long-game. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s fascinating to hear people’s tales; I’ve learned more than can be articulated clearly yet. The most important thing this project has done so far is invigorate my love for interviewing and storytelling in general. I am interviewing to understand.

People are relieved to tell their story if they think you want to hear it. I find most people don’t think their story is important or that it’s relevant. Others worry that the truth sounds bad. They’re afraid to say it.

Don Draper’s confession comes at the crux of his own alcoholic breakdown. It took him completely losing control of his own contrived identity to create an honest moment. It was as hard for him to tell as it was for his audience to hear. But never has an audience felt more about a Hershey bar than in that moment. The story told itself precisely because Draper let go of the reigns.

The question then becomes how do you let go? From a journalistic perspective, you can’t have an agenda. You have to listen. If you think you know the story before the interview, you’ll miss the best stuff. My favorite interviews have been with people I didn’t know well, or in some cases had just met. This means the comfort level isn’t there to facilitate free conversation. It forced me to listen deeper. What are they not saying? What do they want to say but are afraid to? What do they need permission to say?

My personal interviews are purely for research and I won’t be citing people specifically in whatever I write in the future. Even in that anonymous context, people still hesitate. Sometimes they feel like they have to make excuses for how they feel. The hardest thing for a person to do is just speak the truth. That’s why stand-up comedians are so important to our culture. The good ones stand up in front of large crowds and say it straight. That’s their selling point. We laugh because we can’t do that. When they hit that nerve we’re relieved.

“She said it so I don’t have to.”

I’m a fairly open person now, but I grew up an incredibly private one. Most of my real thoughts were never spoken aloud. I imagine that’s true of many of the young people I teach. What is not said keeps me up at night.

This is why I’m excited to advise my school’s newspaper next year. I want my staff to tell the real stories of our school. Not the sanitized versions, not the two-minute interview snapshots. The stories that first make people uncomfortable, but eventually help them understand.

One of the first things one of my colleagues said on the first day of the ASNE institute in Austin was “Students aren’t looking for more information. They’re looking for more ways to connect.”

In that moment I knew I didn’t have to change into some kind of Twitter-happy news hound to advise the newspaper. I could be myself and help the kids tell honest stories. As a young yearbook adviser, I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I was more concerned with not offending people, and pleasing everyone in the school. I’m sure I missed many chances to connect because I saw the book as a publicity tool instead of communication tool.

Stunned by Draper’s childhood admission, one of the Hershey executives asks, “Do you want to advertise that?”

Draper responds, “If I had my way, you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”

We all know. We just need to see it in print.

 

Show your shame

12 May

The other morning my car wouldn’t start, so I had to take my husband’s to work. He winced when he offered me the car.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been.”

I didn’t have time to worry about that, so I climbed into the front seat, shoved a board out of the way and hooked the handle of my coffee mug onto the butterfly net riding shotgun with me. I clicked on NPR and ignored the empty Powerade bottles and gym shorts with the tags still on them next to me. Before I exited the car and headed into school, I glanced into the back seat to find a halogen light, rubbermaid containers filled with rolled up strips of cardboard, a beekeeper’s veil, and a 4 x 250 ft roll of laminating plastic. I didn’t even open the trunk, but it was filled with at least two dozen coconuts. photo(5)

Later in the morning I received the following text:

“After seeing my car at its worst, do you still want to be married to me?”

My husband was horrified that I’d seen his shame. It’s the same reason he gets uncomfortable if I walk on his side of the bed because it means I might trip on clothes, comic books, empty boxes, a suitcase, or general trash.

The only difference between his shame and mine is that I keep mine off the floor. I prefer to put it in a closet or on top of a dresser.

This whole anecdote got me thinking. Everyone needs a corner of shame. No matter how much we gloss up the outside to look organized and healthy, our humanness dictates that we allow ourselves a place for disgrace. A place we pray no one will accidentally discover. Because if we know they’re coming, we’re going to clean it up first.

What we present to the outside world is often not our complete truth. But we write it as if it were. The internet is full of “how to live your best life!” advice and tutorials. The mecca of these places is Pinterest. If you’re not DIY-ing your sugar-free life of quinoa recipes while doing squats on your Chevron-print rug, you’re not really living.

DIY Burlap Wreath!

#Eat Clean

#Abs

Homemade gluten-free bagels!!

How to organize your jewelry with wine corks.

DIY Toddler Adirondack chair with Anchor Decal (adult version comes with wine holders!)

DIY Mason Jar Herb Garden

I am not against any of these things separately, but when presented all together as prescriptions for living “happier and healthier,” I carve out a space to eat Cheez-its and watch Oprah in protest. Pinterest has upped stress in the lives of many, but I still find it useful for ideas I turn into reality, especially recipes and home improvement inspiration. The key is to focus on the things you want in your life, not the things other people want.

This is difficult because people present these options as all-or-nothing propositions. You’re either eating clean or eating dirty. Fit or lazy. Crafty and DIY or unskilled and materialistic. Organic parents or mainstream parents. They forget it’s possible to be both at different times. I think it’s because we try to convince ourselves by convincing others.

In my quest for the best workout routine, I’ve found the path of least resistance has been the easiest to maintain. The go hard-or-go-home approach is only sustainable for so long. For periods of time in my life, I’ve exercised and lifted weights obsessively; I’ve become a regular runner; I’ve taken three exercise classes in one day. I could not be stopped. Until I stopped completely. Which happened every time.

Now I’m at a period in my life where I feel like I’m doing the least amount of regular exercise, but I’ve been able to maintain the same weight the best this way. I take a weight and cardio class at least once a week, I started doing push-ups every day, and I cook healthy meals. I walk/bike/run to supplement but it’s in moderate amounts. We use our rare night of eating out to indulge in more high-calorie foods, and we eat dessert more than I ever have in my life. Small amounts at a time, but more frequently. My next feat is to work this kind of manageable routine into my job and my writing life.

While I understand the need to present our best selves publicly, I respect people more who aren’t afraid to show their corner of  shame. Or they’re terrified but go through with it in order to better themselves. I am working to develop this type of openness as I’m less and less interested in looking good and more interested in feeling good and actually being good at something.

When I moved out of my house in Richmond, I was horrified for people to see my “room of shame” upstairs. After two friends helped me start to clear it out, I felt more motivated to cipher through the rest of the house. By showing them my shame, it removed the stigma and I was able to move forward. Me seeing my husband’s car motivated him to clean it out and get the air-conditioning fixed just a week later.

I’ve been mulling over this post for the past couple of weeks (and not writing it), then today I watched a Creative Mornings talk author Austin Kleon gave in Austin, Texas. His talk is about showing your work online instead of waiting until the perfect finished product is unveiled. His talk is about honesty in the creative process. His talk is very similar to what I wanted to write this post about. He has an insanely bigger internet audience than I do, but I like to think my emphasis on shame over work makes this unique?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing people about their transitions in life, and by slowly understanding how people overcome obstacles, be they self-inflicted or outwardly-inflicted, I’m getting a deeper understanding of how to actually cut away what you don’t want in your life.

I believe you have to cut away to create.

You can’t create anything while hiding in your corner of shame.

Craftlandia

27 Mar

Back in early February, I attended a Buckler Craft Fair in Fort Lauderdale. These fairs are held all over Florida; this particular one was held in the same space as the orchid show Aaron and I went to in January. A few weeks later there was a gun and knife show there. Very different vibe.

I admit, I ventured into Craftlandia ironically. I even convinced my friend to join me because I needed back-up in case they could sniff me out as an imposter. I thought I might need craft cred. Would I have to show a glue gun upon entry? Was there a crochet test? Entry with children in hand-stitched garments required? Mandatory glitter donations?

I walked into the War Memorial Auditorium a professional noncrafter and it felt like that was cross-stitched on my forehead.

Then I started to walk through the exhibits and realized Buckler held a loose definition of the word “craft.”

Bedazzled

IMGP0022

So much to take in.

And the award for Best Bedazzled Tee goes to…

IMGP0019

And so began the “crafts” devoted to whimsical alcoholism.

This one just made me mad.IMGP0040

$5.00 for a poorly painted sign about drunkenness and denial? Is this your idea of custom home decor, Buckler? This is your woodworking?

I tried to move on, but there was this.

IMGP0042 I get that the manatee is supposed to be sad because the boats are making wake and he’s grumpy about it, but after walking a day in his flip flops, I think he needs a margarita. I hear it’s happy hour somewhere.

I feel like this is what outsiders think of Florida: cheap and drunk. On a podcast once, Michael Ian Black described Florida as full of people who’ve “given up.”

I get it. There are those people here, roasting themselves on the boardwalk…becoming beach “lifers” in the way of the older, cynical members of a chain restaurant wait staff. Vacations are meant to be temporary, and when your lifestyle is permanent relaxation, it gives you the illusion of bliss without any of the heart to back it up.

When I worked at the Olive Garden at age 21, I met lifers who never meant for a temporary job to turn into their career. I found myself trying to win over the 45-year old, grizzled veteran who reminded me constantly that I was in her way. She snapped at everyone, and I never saw her smile. It wasn’t until I crashed an entire tray of dishes onto the floor in the middle of the dining room and then amidst seconds of silence, stood up and took a bow, that she ever acknowledged me as a human. Her face lit up and she ran over to tell me that I handled that disaster in the best way possible. She smiled at me plenty after that.

I had a similar experience at the beach yesterday. I was unlocking my bike next to an orange man who wore the small black swim trunks and weathered skin of a lifer, and in my quick judgment, the pointed gaze of a creepy old man. As I mounted my cruiser to ride away, he smiled at me and said “and you’re off again!” His lighthearted tone encouraged me to smile. “Have a great ride,” he called as I pedaled away. Instantly he morphed in my eyes from creeper to sweet retiree who’s earned his beach bliss.

We pass out judgment like candy on Halloween. It’s an obligation to make ourselves feel better. I walked into the craft fair a noncrafter, so naturally I spent the majority of my time feeling better than everyone else.

“I’m a little bit country”

IMGP0029

Look, I’m from a small town in Virginia. My family is from southwest Virginia, which is even more “country” than where I grew up. Biscuits were part of life, but no one real has ever said this. And if they did, they read it on this sign.

Also according to this vignette country people “Cherish the Simple Things.” Like Santa Claus riding a rooster while hoisting the American flag.

And for further exploitation I bring you the following, sponsored by Comic Sans:IMGP0024

Look carefully, bet you can’t see me. IMGP0046

At this point, I told my native South Floridian friend we needed to seek refuge from stereotypes. I found the one place I am relatively snark-free: children’s hairbows. IMGP0032

I dare you to deny the cuteness of handmade hedgehogs and turtles. I bought these for our littlest nieces. They don’t know yet, so shhhh. Actually they can’t read yet, so it’s probably fine to reveal their gifts on the internet.IMGP0061

Fear the frame man

And now comes the portion of the post where I break a craft man’s rules.

Despite the darkness of the War Memorial Auditorium (as demonstrated by poor picture quality), no one objected to me (or other patrons) photographing the items for sale. I snapped photo after photo without so much as a “please don’t do that.”

My friend and I were looking at a series of framed prints. They were of animals, people, patriotic images, famous quotes, etc., but nothing out of the ordinary. No original art to protect here. We came upon this print and I snapped a photo:IMGP0052

My friend then took a picture with her phone thinking she might ask her formerly cat-hating friend who now has four cats if she’d like this. At this moment the craft man emerged from behind the frame wall and demanded that she delete the photo. He pointed frantically to a tiny sign we had missed with a camera and the “no” sign. I apologized and told him we’d missed the sign. Instead of being gracious, he hovered over my friend’s camera until she deleted the photo. He was aggressive and rude to a potential customer. She was considering buying the print and he’d now missed a sale.

Vengeance is ours, frame man. I shall post this crappy photo on the internet for ALL TO SEE!

So feel free to spread this as an example of how not to keep customers.

The Golden Girls

Finally my heart was softened again after meeting two retirees who sold banana bread. They’ve been doing it since 2010.  These Palm Beach ladies had labeled samples, aprons, signs, and enthusiasm. IMGP0049

Banana Nut Heads, LLC’s secret is the nut crust on the top. They have varieties of bread involving cranberry, apple, orange, and the like. I can attest it was delicious and bought a loaf.

The best part of their story is these two friends thought of this idea while having lunch together every day. If you choose the right people to hang out with and talk to them about your crazy ideas, you might just inspire each other to action.

It was a reminder of the other stereotype of Florida: 55+ communities. Seeing these ladies proves that these seniors haven’t given up; they just got tired of being cold. It’s never too late to make a dream happen.

And to close, I’d like to present you this final treasure of the craft fair: IMGP0037

2012 was a year of lies

20 Feb

In third grade it was clear I was a procrastinator. Not only did I get my first C because I put off learning math, but I stayed up later than my parents NOT doing my homework. I was working on a research project on President Nixon one night that year when my dad tried to rescue me. I can still picture him standing over my white desk (that also flipped up into a high chair) trying to explain Watergate to me. I looked up at him, nodding, my mind fixated on the opposite of wiretaps. Eventually, I created a collage of Nixon’s presidency using rubber cement. It LOOKED great, but I doubt I was clear that Watergate was the name of the hotel.

Patching problems became my second nature, and so began my long-practiced craft of applying band-aids to temporarily fix situations. Once the pain stopped, I rarely took the time to heal the faulty process that led to the wounds. It’s much easier to buy more band-aids. This carried into the smallest behaviors of my life:

I bought new underwear instead of going to the laundromat.

When I couldn’t decide what groceries to buy for dinner, I got take out or had many sad “whatever is in the fridge meals.” The worst of which was green beans with onions. Raw onions.

I put off dealing with the reality of a relationship for years too tedious to count.

I moved the same unpacked boxes from apartment to apartment to house.

(Try not to trip over that baggage metaphor.)

I just kept purchasing those beige, adhesive warriors in bulk at 24-hour pharmacies.

I’m not too hard on myself now because I know this is not unusual: patching the surface to get by is more the norm than the exception. (Lie #1 I told myself.)

Something about moving to Florida and getting distance from the usual comforts forced me to take more action on the root of things instead of patching the side effects. Someone very close to me participates in a 12-step program, and while I don’t need the program for addictions, the tenets have proved helpful in my own search to live life more deliberately and less reactionary.

Lie #2: I don’t have my shit together enough to cook real meals every night.

This  turned out to be a true lie. At my most organized, I cooked maybe three times a week. That merited celebration; mostly, I considered myself a food-preparer. Or a taker-outer. Or a throw-a-party-to-inspire-cooking-er.

I wanted to cook at home because I knew it was healthier, less expensive, and more satisfying than the-dinner-less-planned.

Inspired by my sister who preps and shops for her family of five on the weekends, I vowed to do the same. We are two people with a cat: it’s a little embarrassing if we can’t figure this out.

In order to be a person who cooks every night, I had to learn to be a person who plans to cook every night. This meant sitting down every weekend and churning those collected recipes on Pinterest into a menu, and transforming that menu into a grocery list. Going to the grocery store only once a week meant we couldn’t talk ourselves out of cooking because everything we needed was right there in our refrigerator.

Also, once a week? At our old apartment, people at our local Publix started to know us because either Aaron or I was there every.single.day. Meal planning  equaled phone calls after work to each other asking who was going to deal with that mess?

Now we cook 5-6 nights a week, save money, and wear smaller pants.

Issues of frugality and health aside, cooking is creating. By doing it regularly, I experiment with ingredients I’ve never used, and methods that once intimidated me. I’m on month seven of being a cooker, and I love the process as much as the end result.  But there are times I hate it and it feels like work, just like writing. I used to wait until I was inspired to cook; now I do it as habit.

Since no one is asking me to write, I have to boss myself around.

Note to self: I am stubborn and refuse to listen.

Truth of 2013: Inspiration is temporary; write at least a paragraph every day.

Lie #3: I want to run a half marathon.

My college roommate and her fiance traveled down here to run a half marathon this past weekend so I thought maybe it was a sign that I was ready go from 6.2 miles to 13.1. One of my colleagues and neighbors is a long-distance runner and was even willing to help me train. But it was still an “I want to want to run 13 miles” situation. I threw myself into the process for weeks at times, then I took breaks and had to restart again. My last push came during my winter break from school and the week afterwards. I ran in Virginia in 20-degree temps, undaunted. I returned to run in Florida at 80 degrees in full sun with humidity, and motivation started to wane. Then I got sick for 7+ days and it was over. There just wasn’t time to want the things I didn’t really want to begin with.

Wanting what other people want never works. Actually, working towards something you think you want never works either.  I wanted to run two 10K’s, and I ran them, the second one faster than the first. Eventually, I might want to run a half marathon. That time is not now; it’s fine.

My 30′s have been a decade of learning the difference between what I want and what I think I should want. The difference between what fulfills me and what fulfills other people.  Running for longer than an hour at a time does not complete me.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Truth of  2013: Run at least once a week, even when I don’t want to.

Lie #4: Self-discipline is a breakthrough, not a long-term battle.

This lie screamed the loudest. My procrastination habits had always crippled me without deadlines. Too often I allow distractions to shift my focus; it’s a lifelong battle to manage them. In 2012, I imitated a home DIY-er, an amateur sous chef, a real runner, a regular reader and writer, and a motivated teacher who grades essays in a timely fashion.

Home projects accomplished in 2013: Zero.

Miles run in 2013: 20 in one week then a steady zero.

Meals cooked in 2013: 35 (The system works!)

Books read in 2013: Zero.

Blogs/articles/podcasts/animal videos that distracted me from reading books in 2013: ALL OF THEM.

Oscar-nominated films seen in 2013: Three.

Papers graded in 2013: 3.14156 per hour over the square root of it never ends.

Finished pieces of writing: Zero. Not even this blog post started in 2012.

Pieces of writing worth your time: Zero (see # of books read in 2013).

Muses are fickle so I have find a way to freedom through self-flagellation. And so ends my mid-February New Year’s Resolutions post: cheers to the liars!

What it means to be silent

18 Dec

When I was a senior in college, I traveled to the Bronx, NY, to interview for a job as a community organizer. During the interview process (which lasted all weekend), one of the organizers spoke to us about why she left her career as a stage manager to become an organizer. She said something that made such a huge impression on me that I re-evaluated everything I knew to be true.

“Art doesn’t bring social justice.”

This put two of my most cherished ideals in conflict. I was the English major who’d devoted time each summer since the age of 13 to ending hunger and homelessness. I read poetry and I gleaned corn. I studied Shakespeare and the reasons for domestic and global hunger.  I became a vegetarian. I recycled. I volunteered at the local homeless shelter when I could.

I also auditioned (unsuccessfully) for plays, read my poems at open mic nights, and took in all the live music I could get my ears on.  I decided to major in English while loving every last word of a mythology poem. If I could savor each word so specifically, what was I doing majoring in psychology or sociology? Even after I declared, I had no real plan. Someone just said, “major in the thing you love the most.” When you make it that simple, it becomes an easy choice. I finally decided to be a teacher while reading a book. Every decision I’ve made that seems to fit me has come from following my heart.

Being a community organizer was something I felt like I should try. It seemed like a tough but important opportunity. So when that woman said art didn’t change anything, I took it personally. Not  because I owned art or even considered myself a part of art, but I definitely believed art changed people because it changed me.

But I was 21 years old, optimistic and impressionable, and I thought this meant that I couldn’t have it both ways: I couldn’t pursue feats of imagination when people lacked food and shelter. If I was serious about wanting to “change the world,” I had to choose.

Dear 21-year-old me: That woman lied!

The only thing that changes complicated political/cultural/social barriers is Art.

Art and service to each other.

It’s not partisan activist groups.

It’s not unions.

It’s not xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, or tribalism.

It’s not gun control Facebook fights.

It’s not passive aggressive gratitude posts.

It’s not gloating after your side wins an election.

It’s not a lot of things that pretend to change the world.

The world is changed one person at a time, over long periods of time.

Back in May of 2011, comedian Marc Maron interviewed Garry Shandling on his podcast and the two were discussing solutions to political and spiritual dilemmas. Maron, who once worked for the now-defunct Air America talk radio, speaks about turning away from politics because he came to believe people’s real problems were more existential than political. I take that to mean that we need to grapple with our own decision-making (free will) versus picking a side or a team.

Garry Shandling said maybe the only thing that could transcend those differences is art.

Marc Maron said maybe the only thing that could change things is heart.

“I think it’s heart,” Maron repeated softly, with a vulnerability that makes you listen closer.

Others might say faith.

I was taken right back to that moment of truth from my youth when I thought I had to pick a side.

It’s a false choice.

I didn’t end up getting that job as an organizer. Thank goodness. I would have spent that entire year trying to be someone I am not. Someone too cynical about “reality” to honor the power creativity has in lifting the most burdened body or soul.

“We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”

–Ray Bradbury

If ever a person was in love with the world, it was our recently departed Bradbury. He put a microscope on the truth, then he moved forward in pursuit of joy.

The fire was gone, then back again, like a winking eye. He stopped, afraid he might blow the fire out with a single breath. But the fire was there and he approached warily, from a long way off. It took the better part of fifteen minutes before he drew very close indeed to it, and then he stood looking at it from cover. That small motion, the white and red color, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him. 

It was not burning. It was warming.

He saw many hands held to its warmth, hands without arms, hidden in darkness. Above the hands, motionless faces that were only moved and tossed and flickered with firelight. He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take.

****************

There was a silence gathered all about that fire and the silence was in the men’s faces, and time was there, time enough to sit by this rusting track under the trees and look at the world and turn it over with the eyes, as if it were held to the center of the bonfire, a piece of steel these men were all shaping. It was not only the fire that was different. It was the silence.

  –Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

There is too much talking right now and not enough silence. In honor of those 20 children in Connecticut, and the adults who tried desperately to save them, I choose to listen before I speak. I choose to celebrate service before I give an audience to hatred. Those teachers, among whom could have been my own sister and one of my dearest friends, did what teachers do every day. They protect their students, they expose them to art, history, science, math, literature: they give them a glance into something bigger than themselves.

When I was in second grade, my teacher said to me: “You like writing, don’t you?”

Yes, yes I do.

Of ants and orchids

18 Sep

South Florida defines transition. Its very nature is ever-shifting and wild. This makes it the perfect place to rip yourself from comfort.

It is a collision of things you would never expect to find together in one place—condominiums and panthers and raw wood and hypermarkets and Monkey Jungles and strip malls and superhighways and groves of carnivorous plants and theme parks and royal palms and hibiscus trees and those hot swamps with acres and acres that no one has ever seen—all toasting together under the same sunny vault of Florida sky.

….

Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

We have four species of ants living in our house, including giant carpenter ants and the invasive, persistent white-footed ants who form super colonies. As in multiple queens fed by foraging workers who serve more than one mother. The lines between colonies become invisible  since they all share a communal stomach. This means the same amount of bait toxicant that would normally eliminate a colony invading your house is just a drop in the ocean. Since the super colony can extend at least a football field’s length away from wherever you happen to observe it, you need more than a drop to stop the ants from marching like, well, ants.

In this kind of environment, you adjust to having ants around. It’s weird to brush your teeth in the morning and watch them crawling into a Terro bait inside your medicine cabinet, sure. But they aren’t actually stopping me from good dental hygiene. Do they occasionally crawl inside the water glass? Yes. I’ve learned to keep the glass on the bedside table and take it with me to the sink. Adaptations.

I’ve turned a new corner in my transition this year. Last year, I fixated on the ants. I felt them crawling on me even when they weren’t touching me. When I saw them on the kitchen counter, I worried about my food being contaminated. I obsessed over how to expel the current ants and stop future ones from coming in. Every new place I found an ant, I alerted my entomologist husband, as if to say: “Isn’t it your job to control this?” I could have this many ants on my own!

My professional life felt like it was spinning out of control: I had questioned my identity as a teacher all the way down to its ugly, seedy core. For the first time in my life, I was honestly investigating other careers. The merit pay system instituted in Florida that set out to dismiss poor teachers and reward the good ones had given ineffective administrators tools to micromanage and inflict doubt upon those who already practiced heavy introspection. The others learned to get all the surface things shiny.

There is an argument that strong teachers shouldn’t worry about this system, as it’s set out to codify just where they excel. Let me be clear: I have no worries about losing my job due to this evaluation. I’ll keep being “effective.” But what I’m already seeing is mediocre teachers performing to get these marks. They give the kids scripts and follow principals’ fixations on surface elements to ensure that data mark gets checked. I also see excellent teachers who cannot tolerate less than “innovative” ratings because they know they are highly effective and want the paperwork to back it up. While I understand the former’s insecurities leading them to performance AND the latter’s need to have evaluations that reflect their master teaching, I had to withdraw from this battle in order to stay in the profession.

Last year I read obsessively about what was happening to teachers all over the country; I became impassioned; I formed discussion groups; I wrote things. Then I spent too much of last year in misery because I kept trying to stop the ants from getting in. I needed to make sense of it. I needed rational voices leading my people. They weren’t to be found in any capacity that controlled my reality. It started to feel like more than just a bad year to get through, and more like a culture change that was here to stay. The more I educated myself on this culture, the more I decided I was ready to leave teaching.

Those thoughts were so foreign to me that I often felt like a stranger to myself. Thankfully, I had colleagues I respected who saw me through one of toughest years in my career, one so riddled with self-doubt that I nearly crumbled at one point. I had not until last year been treated as anything but a professional. I saw my administrators as my support system, not people working against me and my fellow teachers. Now I am in an environment where from the school-level to the district to the state, I am to be micromanaged. I cannot be trusted to educate myself on the best teaching methods or to constantly perfect my craft a little each year. I need to be mandated down to a script on how to get my students to be critical thinkers. This irony escapes no teachers, but most education policy makers.

The blessings of not having been micromanaged my entire career made me ill-prepared to be treated as a factory worker instead of a teacher. I worked a few temp jobs during the summers in factories in my formerly-industrial hometown. I expected to be micromanaged there; I was inspecting air-conditioner parts–I needed black and white directions on what to do in order to be successful on the job. As much as educational reformists want to make the art of teaching an industrialized matter, teachers all over this country know it’s gray matter. We help mold that matter of our students into useable skills; we help them become bigger thinkers and better writers. Unfortunately, the people who are data-marking us do not always have the ability to recognize it even when they see it because it doesn’t look like the blueprint a standardized testing company passed down to them.

I chose to stop listening to all the noise and listen only to my respected colleagues and my own voice. That voice told me to focus on what’s best for the students. I will take the advice of my superiors when it makes me a better teacher (I am not obstinate), but when it feels like a performance for an adult versus a better lesson for my students, I will go my own way. I will always be rated “effective,” though likely not “highly effective” for this refusal to play the game. I’m okay with that; it frees me up to actually be innovative.

If this system somehow rates me as “ineffective,” then I’ll know it’s my time to leave. Not because I haven’t done ineffective things in my classroom; I have and will again as I continue to try new things that challenge both my students and me. I will learn from those failures and turn them into future successes. Any system that determines that process isn’t “successful” is not a place for me.

Here’s what “reformers” miss: If you’re busy trying not to look bad, you miss the chance to get good. I’m old enough to not be content with looking good; I want to BE good. That’s the same I want for my students.

For now, I’ve found a way to ignore the noise that made me start to hate teaching last year. I know this won’t last forever, but at least for now I’m enjoying being in the classroom again. I have twice the students and half the planning time this year, but compared to my outlook last year, I’m still happier.

Florida has transformed me into a person who appreciates the ants as much as the orchids. It’s impossible to board out nature down here: you have to embrace it. Grass grows inside our screened porch during rainy season; the moat that forms around our house leaks into the guest room. We have to wait until it dries out completely before we can paint the sealant on the house, but it keeps on raining.

Before the swale drains out, the ants seek refuge inside our house again. They eat the bait and feed it to another inch’s worth of the colony’s trajectory; a few more drops in the ocean. We learn to accept the ants as temporary residents and go on about our day. I barely notice them now, as they are much reduced since the initial invasion. It’s the moment I stopped focusing on them that I stopped viewing them as obstacles to my happiness. I finally stepped back to take it all in.

It was in the nature of Florida, this kind of abundance, the overrichness of living things–so many of everything that all of it blurs together and you have to decide whether to be part of the blur or to be a distinct and separate being.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

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