Friday, November 21, 2014

Perfectly In Sync, at Least for One Day

Yesterday I tagged along on a field trip to the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.  I expected to like the Café Dolly exhibit best, and while it was interesting, I was far more captivated by the photography exhibit.

The curators were interested in what the photographers were capturing in terms of the American experience.  So there are lots of photographs of gas stations at the middle of the century (more fascinating than it sounds!) and houses of all sorts.  There are some of the inner city scenes that are now iconic--people at drug store counters, back when there were soda fountains in drug stores, and people in holding cells.

There were pictures of road signs and billboards.  There were photos from WPA era times--a different set of iconic scenes from the Great Depression. 

It made me think of my desire to travel the U.S. South to take pictures of falling-down structures:  houses and barns and fences.  My friend and colleague who teaches the class said she'd always wanted to capture drive-in theatres before they're all gone.  I thought of all the structures along the coastline that are gone.  I'm especially sad that I never took pictures of an apartment building at Hollywood Beach that had a spiral staircase from the ground floor to the second floor.  Along the staircase, were concrete mermaids, about the size of half a forearm, one per every 7 steps or so.

That structure is gone to make way for a faux-Tuscan monstrosity of an upscale condo building.  Sigh.

My friend and I finished our field trip by going to the Starbucks at the hospital where we could sit in the outside courtyard.  We drank our holiday drinks and talked about ways to save students that we might not have thought of before.  And then we went back to campus to give it a try.

It was one of those days that made me feel wonderful, like my job is in alignment with my truest self.  I don't always feel that way, so I'm grateful for days like yesterday.

In the late afternoon, I was pleased to find myself in good company, in Jeannine Hall Gailey's gratitude post.  I want to mention it here, so that I don't forget.  So often I beat myself up for what I don't accomplish, and I forget to remember what I've done that's been working/successful/good.

Jeannine says, "Here are some bloggers I’ve been reading for a while that I’m thankful for (and you should take a peek at their blogs, too!) Obviously I love and value everyone on my blog roll or they wouldn’t be there, but these are the blogs I turn to when I’m discouraged, I need a lift, or I need to commiserate." 

And then she says this about me:  "a mix of writing, college administration, and spiritual living, Kristin in intelligent and thoughtful and often ponders things in a way that (I think) make me thing about stuff that’s really important."

Wow!  Thanks for that affirmation, Jeannine!

I've often said that I'd write even if I had no readers at all, because my writing is important to me in so many ways.  But I do love the affirmation that comes when I find out that my writing is important to others too.

Yes, yesterday was a day when I felt like my life was in sync with my values:  good art, good writing, good company, good teaching, trying to make the world a better place, in a variety of ways.  My gratitude post of yesterday continues!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gratitude Countdown to Thanksgiving

It's hard to believe we're one week out from Thanksgiving--which means we're getting close to the end of school terms.  I feel a bit of stress just typing that last sentence.  So let me take a few minutes to center myself.  I'll make a gratitude list to do a bit of self-grounding.

--I'm thinking of a year ago, when the coconut palms in the backyard started dropping their coconuts.  We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of breaking glass.  Happily no one was breaking in.  Unhappily, a coconut had crashed into the outdoor light of our cottage.

Since then, we have had the trees removed.  Hurrah!

--I am grateful that my current job does not involve math.  Last night I had to do an onboarding assessment.  At first I thought it was just personality assessment.  But then I got to the math.  It's math I could do, if I had plenty of time.  But I just didn't want to do it.  Happily, my work life does not depend on me having to sit there and puzzle it out.

--This morning, I heard a news feature on a reporter who started to ask people about their passwords and the stories that they reveal.  From there, I wove an interesting poem that talks about passwords and comets.  I love a poem that comes suddenly.

For all the times that I feel frustrated with having less time to write than I wish I did, I'm grateful for the time I do have.  I'm deeply cognizant of the fact that many people would be grateful to have the time that I have.

--I did a Google search of my name, and this time clicked on the images to see more.  I'm grateful that there aren't pictures that make me cringe.  I was surprised by how many pictures aren't pictures of me, but pictures I've posted on my blog.  I'm grateful to be reminded of how many cool projects I've been part of and then blogged about.

--Tomorrow we're going to the first annual tree lighting and holiday concert at the Hollywood Arts Park.  I'm grateful to have friends who want to go with us.  I'm grateful for a festive event.

You might say it's too early for holiday events.  I would disagree.  And I'm not even upset about Christmas commercials.  It's so much better than the Oct. barrage of political ads.  Give me carols and snow and surprise gifts in the advertising landscape any day!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Unexpected Treats in a Work Day

Yesterday I had planned to have a working lunch with a colleague friend.  Most of my working lunches are held nearby because both parking and time are at a premium.  Yesterday, my friend and I had more time, and her 2:00 meeting was across the street where there is plenty of parking.  So we decided to have an adventure.

We headed north.  The cold front was already pushing through:  a spit of rain here and there from the gray, wooly clouds overhead.  She knew of a great restaurant with a view.

And what a view!  There was a bit of rolling grass and then some sea grape cover (or was it mangrove?) and then sand and sea.  It was the kind of day when I most like gazing out at the horizon:  deserted beaches and rain rolling in.  But not the kind of rain where I worry about flooded roads and roofs springing a leak.

Of course, the difficulty of a great view is that it's hard to think about the working part of a working lunch.  But we covered what we needed to cover.  We had a great lunch.  We treated ourselves to dessert, an amazing crème brulee that had some sort of chocolate custard underneath.

We agreed that we could have perched there all day, gazing at the steely sea.  We thought about how the restaurant would make a great house if one had unlimited wealth.  We talked about what to do with our limited wealth.  Could one afford a small something with a similar view?

In this time of increasingly severe storms and sea level rise, would one want to?

We exchanged hurricane stories.  We talked of friends elsewhere, like my friends in the Asheville area, who have had worse hurricane seasons during some years than we have down here at the edge of the sand.

And finally, we returned to our less delightful work duties, satiated with good food, wonderful conversation, and a gorgeous view.  And thus, the rest of the work day was drenched with a sense of well being.

We had cared for ourselves, and we returned, all the better equipped to do the work that needs to be done, work which essentially involves caring for others.  I went to classes to tell them about the Art Grant.  I went to a first quarter class to talk to students about how to be most successful.  I called students on the at-risk list.  I evaluated transcripts.

And at the end of the day, a book that I had ordered as a preview copy was in my mailbox.  Hurrah! 

I like a work day that reminds me that work does not have to be drudgery.  I like a work day with unexpected treats.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What to Read on the Day that the Vote on a Pipeline is Scheduled

I know that today may be a difficult day for my political friends, depending on which way the vote on the Keystone XL pipeline goes.  Oddly enough, I've been reading Bill McKibben's latest book, Oil and Honey, which dovetails nicely with the political events of the week--but it's odd, because I started it long before the vote was scheduled.

It's also odd, because I have that sense of time warping--the book covers the beginning of the protest against the pipeline back in 2011, and here we are, years later, still waiting to see how it all turns out.

Regardless of how the vote goes, it's important to remember that the vote has been delayed because of the actions of this band of protestors.  And President Obama may prevent the construction of the pipeline, if the Senate and the House give approval--and that would not have been the case without this protest movement.

The movement was helped by the larger institutionalized protest groups--but the bulk of the movement was comprised of ordinary folks.  McKibben, himself, is a fairly ordinary guy:  a teacher and a writer at midlife.  He shows the way that a movement can be built:  he knows these people who know these people and eventually, they get the attention of the White House.

The book also tells the story of one of the more successful beekeepers in the U.S.  It explores the ways that people can combine resources:  McKibben has a bit of money to buy some land, but no time to care for it the way he would like.  The beekeeper has vast knowledge, but no money to buy land.  They combine forces to find that interesting twists and turns happen.

It's a book about the land and all the ways we might save it.  It's a book about ordinary citizens and the power that they have.  It's a good reminder in these political times.

And regardless of how the vote goes, McKibben continuously reminds us (and I'm only halfway through the book) that the environmental struggle is never truly won.  I would say that the flip side is that the battle is never truly lost either.  I've written this before, but it bears repeating:  when I was a child, you couldn't swim in many of the country's rivers--and they sometimes caught fire. Now you can swim in most of them without too much fear. When I was a child, in major metropolitan areas, you could see the air you were breathing. Now, you can't, at least in Europe and the U.S.

I'm also thinking of the death of Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues:  what an amazing life (more details here).  I think of this book as one of the classics, so I was startled to realize that it wasn't published until 1993.  I had been thinking it was one of those 70's books, like Rubyfruit Jungle.

Let us take a minute to think about how much has changed in the world since 1993.  For one thing, we can use a word like transgendered, and many of us have an understanding of what that means.  And that book, the remarkable work of one amazing writer, helped bring about that change.

I think that many of us are guilty of one of the deadliest sins, the sin of despair, of being unable to imagine that change can happen.  We think that our work doesn't matter.  We think that it's much too late.

McKibben has documented in numerous places that we have indeed changed the planet, and it likely won't change back.  But while life on this planet will be harder in some ways, in others, it's easier now, at least in parts of the world, as this article reminds us.  Many of us have more freedom to be our authentic selves.

It's good to have these books and these humans as examples of why it's important not to waste that freedom.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Teacher as Presence: Online and Onground

I've been going to Humanities and Communication classes to talk about the Art Grant.  I also went to a colleague's class to give an orientation type talk that our Associate Dean used to give, back when we had associate deans.

It's a class that all first quarter students are supposed to take, so I talk about all the ways that their academic careers can go wrong.  I talk about when to drop a class and when to stick it out, about incremental completion rates, about academic warnings and terminations.  It sounds gloomy, but I try to make it interesting.

My colleague told me that I had quite a presence in the classroom, so I'm calling it a success.

Beyond the compliment, I started thinking about the online classroom.  Some of the skills that make me a compelling presence in the onground classroom--do they translate online?

I don't yet know.  Right now, I'm not utilizing video in the online class, so my compelling presence relies on my words.  That works well for some students.  I do suspect that online discussions and e-mails are easier to ignore than a roaming presence in the onground classroom.  And it's harder for me to perceive who's getting left behind in the online world.  Onground, I can tell who's zoning out and who has drifted off to sleep.  I can tell people to look away from their distractions and stand over them until they do.

I can't always do that with my online students.  But I'm delighting in some aspects of my online classes.  For example, I've been having an e-mail exchange with a student who loved the Flannery O'Connor short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."  She's fascinated by O'Connor's giving characters several different choices in the world she creates and following the consequences of those decisions.  She asked if I know of any novelists who explore human nature and the consequences of decisions.

Now I could make the argument that the roots of most conflicts in fiction are rooted precisely there.  But instead, I listed some of my favorite contemporary artists and books that are most suited to her quest; I included people like Gail Godwin and Barbara Kingsolver.

We've been having an ongoing discussion about these novelists and O'Connor and the possibilities for the paper that she needs to write for the class.  What a joy.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Eating: Pathetic, Soothing, Celebratory

I've been baking cookies--Butterscotch Bars, the easiest cookie recipe ever, the one I pull out when I need something quick and tasty for a gathering.  The recipe is here.

The cookie baking put me in mind of a funny incident at the office earlier this week.  I had a plastic container open on my desk.  My colleague said, "Are those cookies?"

I held up the piece of broccoli I was eating.  "No.  Broccoli."

He wrinkled his nose.  "Not cookies."

I said, "Wait, it's worse.  It's old broccoli.  It's broccoli I'm trying to eat up before it goes bad."

And yes, I know how pathetic that sounds.

But wait--it's worse.  It's broccoli that I paid much too much for.  I went to the Fresh Market, and I bought a bunch of broccoli, the only one in the pile that I thought was worth any money at all.  That broccoli had seen better days.

So, I bought a bunch and later, I stopped by a Doris Italian Market.  I could have gotten much better broccoli for a much lower price.  Sigh.

So, if you're wondering why I forced myself to eat broccoli that was far from its best days, it's because I was already annoyed with myself for paying too much.

Paying too much and then throwing away--that would really make me mad at myself.

How much more I love baking--the kitchen activity which so rarely disappoints--unless you count the extra calories which can lead to extra pounds.  But I've gotten better at moderating that in the last few years.

Perhaps it's because I'm using wine these days to soothe my anxieties and to celebrate the end of the day.  I used to end the day with extravagant baked goods that I'd made--along with ice cream.  And more baked goods.  Now, if I'm eating those kinds of calories--and it's much more rare--I try to do it earlier in the day, so that I have more hours to burn it off.

And yes, hopefully some day I will become the kind of evolved person who doesn't need food or wine to soothe my anxieties or celebrate the end of the day.

Or do I?  Certainly I'd like a better way of processing anxiety.

But it's hard to think I'll ever want to completely abandon the practice of celebrating with food and wine.  That impulse is deeply rooted in our collective humanity--and likely for a reason.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Medieval Monastic Tradition: Making a Way Out of No Way

My essay about Gertrude the Great is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

I am startled to realize how many of these medieval monastics I've written about.  Ten years ago, I would not have anticipated this turn of events.

I've been thinking about the strange twists and turns of a writing career--my brain returns to this topic periodically, but this time, it was triggered by this article on the Poetry website.  The author observes, "Those of us who matriculate through MA, MFA, and PhD programs join a select club relative to the general population: writers who can make some kind of living, no matter how meager, from work related to their art. Access to that club is so limited and our numbers so few that we become a class unto ourselves, a writing class serving as poetry’s own version of a 1 percent. It’s true that club isn’t so decadent as the analogy implies. I put in time after my MFA and again after my PhD earning lousy incomes as an adjunct lecturer, postdoctoral fellow, and visiting writer. I taught my share of overwhelming course loads for underwhelming pay without health insurance or job security. Still, I remained a poet in the academy and party to its culture even as it exploited me as a low-cost laborer."

I'm thinking of the strange twists and turns not just of a writing career, but in terms of my teaching and academic career.  I would not have anticipated that I'd find publication opportunities in writing about medieval monastics and mystics--but I have.  I would not have anticipated a website like Living Lutheran, which needs much more in the way of content than the monthly magazines where I first sent my creative non-fiction.

I'm also thinking of the twists and turns of other careers.  One of our colleagues who was laid off in March assumed he'd never find another full-time job--he's over 60, after all.  But he just told me that he'll be the first full-time online teacher at a local college.  In that capacity, he'll also be a lead instructor type of person, someone who keeps tabs on all the online faculty.  He's sort of a teacher, sort of a department chair, sort of a trainer.  Ten years ago, there weren't many of these kinds of jobs.

I've done my fair share of worrying about the future of higher education and my distance from retirement.  And yet, so far, I've made good for myself, but always in ways I didn't anticipate.

I went to grad school assuming that I'd get a lovely teaching job at a small, liberal arts college.  So far, it's the one kind of school where I've never taught.  But I've found elements of the liberal arts college wherever I went.

I'll continue to hold fast to tales of making a way out of no way.  And perhaps that's what most attracts me to these medieval monastics and mystics.  They, too, found a supportive community in the midst of a larger society which didn't understand their passions.