Monday, December 27, 2010

Being New: What's in the Balance

When I started my new teaching job this fall, I told myself that it wouldn't be like being a new teacher again. Those six years of experience would provide a kind of lifejacket to keep me safely afloat above the treacherous waters of Being New. As it turns out, Being New is Being New -- experienced or not. Once again, grading and lesson planning are eating up all of my personal time, and my job extends well beyond the 40 hours per week allotted for it. I rarely spend meaningful time with my husband, and I squeeze in a quick visit with my parents once a week if I'm lucky, in spite of the fact that that they live only a few short miles from my new school. I know that next year will be easier, and the year after that will be easier still, but this year is very, very hard.

This year, I am Scrooge, locked away in my office, hard at work while the world is out to rejoice in the splendor of the Christmas season and the three feet of snow that have effectively shut down our normally busy city. So, as it has been for the previous 4+ years, my New Year's resolution is to create more balance in my life, to make more time. But, just when I thought that I might actually be coming close to making strides toward that end in my old life in San Diego, we decided to uproot our lives and start all over again in a new life that feels very far away. In other words, back to the energy-sucking chaos of Square One.

Like most dedicated teachers, I battle feelings of guilt and inadequacy even on my best of days, so on the days (weeks, months, years...) when I feel overwhelmed, those feelings become amplified. On these occasions, I seriously long for a new line of work, one that I can actually master. Sometimes I envy the administrative assistants with the perfectly organized files and the mail carriers with their down-pat systems for distributing their letters and packages. I don't mean to suggest that either of these positions are in any way easier than my own; I'm certain that they come with their own sets of challenges and frustrations, but I envy the way in which they lend themselves to systematizing. I will never have teaching "down cold;" I will never master it or learn it or develop it to the point that it becomes routine, and, thus, I will always be striving. Inherent within striving is a feeling of failure, or, at the very least, a feeling of being incomplete or unfinished. I think, sometimes, that I am just too Type A to be able to live in this kind of work with any degree of comfort.

Of course, I know from experience that my teaching life will get easier as I become more familiar with the curriculum, the standards, the expectations. But, becoming familiar with these things requires patience, and patience is just what I feel short on these days. Starting over is hard, and starting over in every aspect of one's life, as moving necessitates, is draining. The holidays inspire talk of slowing down, appreciating life's small blessings, and I feel like a Scrooge for not being able to put on the brakes and just rest and enjoy, especially since so many of those Scrooge-esque tales are about those silly fools who don't realize that work is less important than family. But what if your work is about caring for and building up children, giving them the best of yourself? How to put it in perspective then?

Balance, I know for sure, is the key. But it's so much easier to tell tales exalting its virtue than it is to create balance in the real world of so many worthy ways to spend one's time. And so I will strive, for yet another year, to locate that place where things are in equilibrium, where life swings pleasantly from side to side, allowing us enough time in each place to find at least a small bit of that ever-elusive thing called fulfillment.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beanies and Babies: Re-post from Christmas 2009

Below is a writing assignment I've given my students for the previous two years, and below is the model I shared with my students last year. I invite you to consider your own holiday wish list and its significance...

Task: "Identity is often shaped by the things we long for." -- Bich Minh Nguyen

Choose one item that is on your holiday wish list (or one item that is not on your list) and reflect on what this item's presence on (or absence from) your list reveals about where you are in your life right now.

Questions to consider for inspiration: How does this item's presence/absence reveal...
-- a facet of your personality?
-- an emotional need or desire?
-- a fear or anxiety?

-- a regret?
-- an accomplishment?
-- a change in your ideological outlook?
-- an image that you have of yourself?
-- a trait/talent/goal/idea that you wish to cultivate?
-- a change that you wish to enact in yourself or in your life circumstances?
See example below...

My family doesn’t do a traditional gift exchange for Christmas; as our family has grown, shopping for everyone has become an unmanageable task, but we all like the idea of exchanging gifts for the holiday. So, we’ve opted for a “Secret Santa” gift exchange in which we each create a list of our favorite stores and suggestions for gifts and then choose one person’s list from a hat and purchase only for him/her. For the previous few years, my list has required little revision. I still wear basically the same sizes, and I still want basically the same things: clothes, handmade jewelry, books. However, this year, I had to change the stores that I listed as my favorites, and I was forced to acknowledge, in doing so, that I am at a different point in my life than I was at when I created the first version of this list three years ago.

At 25, when I made my list, my favorite store was listed as “Anthropologie,” and I still say this store when I am asked about my favorite place to shop. I realized, though, in revising my Christmas list last month, that I have not actually purchased an item of clothing from this store in almost four years. At 25, I could pull off funky-hippie-chic, but the closer I get to 30, the more ridiculous I feel in a mohair sweater with mismatched buttons, a ruffled lace peasant skirt, and a beanie. I feel like I used to look like a trendy fashionista, and now I just look like a half-drunk homeless woman in this sort of outfit.

I suppose what makes me most anxious in reviewing my 2009 Christmas list is that it is conspicuously bereft of all that redeems women from the trauma of turning 30, such as d├ęcor for one’s first house or baby paraphernalia for one’s first bundle of joy. (My only home is a too-small rental and my only bundle of joy has fur.) I realize that I am not where I thought I’d be at this age, and I am currently in the process of digesting what this means. It is not that I couldn’t buy a house if I wanted to, albeit in a less desirable neighborhood and without the stainless steel appliances and hardwood floors of my current apartment, but a house of my own nonetheless. It is also not as if I can’t have a baby, at least to the best of my knowledge. Up until now, I just haven’t wanted either of those things enough to make the necessary sacrifices to attain them (loss of sleep, loss of figure, restrictions on time and travel, depletion of savings account, etc.). Does this make me selfish? Stupid? Abnormal? I have always believed that it does not – it makes me self-aware, a person who strikes out on her own, who has A Life.

But now, I am no longer a fashionista – I shop, I admit, at Ann Taylor... and I like it! I wear cardigans in too-bright colors and button-down dress shirts….to bars. I refuse to wear “ultra low rise” jeans because I don’t like my lower back to show. (The other day, I almost purchased a pair of dangly Christmas earrings a la my mom circa1987. The only thing that stopped me was the fact that the earrings were $3.99, but I didn’t have cash and there was a $1.00 fee for credit card purchases under $10. Thank God for holiday price-gouging!)

So, here I am. I am in flux. A childless woman in what are dangerously close to mom-jeans who is, for the very first time, seriously contemplating the prospect of filling out that high rise waist with a baby belly. Does this mean that I must succumb to becoming old and hopelessly uncool? Must I carry a sensible purse and vow only to purchase shoes that are comfortable to walk in? Will I have to adopt the suburban mom bob haircut and start sporting seasonally appropriate holiday sweaters? Perhaps, but, for the first time, I think I’m willing to risk it.

And who knows, maybe I’ll break out that beanie on days when I’m too busy chasing kiddos to do my hair…

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Imaginings: A "Book of Questions"-Inspired Poem

I'm currently teaching my students to use "mentor poems" to try out writing poetry. The idea is that you select a poem whose structure, style, and/ or approach you admire, and then you rewrite the content, mimicking the poet's style/structure/approach. It's an ideal approach to poetry for those of us who are a bit gun-shy about poetry-writing because it allows the writer the comfort of a tried and true form and just leaves the challenge of coming up with content. 

I chose Pablo Neruda's "The Book of Questions" for inspiration because I admire his ability to conjure completely unique images in his readers' minds with seemingly simple, yet really beautiful questions. One of my favorite lines from his poem is "Tell me, is the rose naked/or is that her only dress?"

Here's what I came up with...

When will apricots learn that it takes
                  more muscles to frown than it does to smile?

Do mopeds know that the world is
                 a wide and vast place?

If we forget to remember the clouds,
                 will they pout?

Is there anything more precious than tripping
                 on the uneven ground of a cobblestone street?

How often to bedbugs
                 bite off pieces of the moon?

Why are people always
                 unfaithful to daisies?

Why does the aspen tree wake up
                 so early in the morning?

Where should we store our broken hearts
                 if not from southern tree limbs?

Is there anything more tragic
                than a dancing catfish?

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Social Network: A Review and Some Thoughts

A friend and I took part of our Sunday to see the new film The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, written by Alan Sorkin and starring Jesse Eisenberg. It was two hours well-spent (partly because the film was entertaining and partly because we can now become part of the on-going conversations about the film, as it has become something of a social phenomenon itself). For anyone who has read anything about Facebook's contentious beginnings, the actual storyline doesn't contain any really new or shocking information, but the organization of the story--alternating between flashbacks at Harvard and a legal deposition in which the Zuckerberg character settles accounts with Harvard students who claim a stake in his company--allows the viewer to simultaneously get both the backstory and the contemporary controversy, which lends additional significance to both time periods.  I felt that the acting was all strong, but Jesse Eisenberg deserves commendation for his ability to present a character that is both entirely annoying and socially inept and yet also completely sympathetic and likeable. An impressive feat. (I knew he'd do great things when I saw him in Adventureland!). Andrew Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin (Zuckerberg's original business partner and his best friend), and he is pretty much the most adorable person ever. He just looks so perfectly and tragically heartbroken when Zuckerberg does him in that you just want to kiss him for his sweet naivete. Or at least I did.

For me, perhaps the most fascinating element of the film is the fact that Sorkin makes no claims of the screenplay's objective veracity in terms of his character depictions, but he does claim to have done extensive research to ensure that the story itself is as close to accurate as it could be. Interestingly, as I learned when I heard Justin Timberlake interviewed on NPR this week, Sorkin actually went so far as to forbid the actors from contacting their real-life counterparts to get additional information or perspective beyond what the screenplay offered them. Sorkin's decree sort of begs the question of whether or not one can get a story just right without getting the people just right, and it also asks whether a person is a reliable source of information on himself or whether he is, as Sorkin seems to think, the least reliable source of information on himself. Sorkin's approach certainly enters the film into the increasingly popular genre of "creative nonfiction" -- one of my absolute favorites right now due in large part to its use of narrative techniques to tell real-life stories. (I just read Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, and he claims that the human brain is hardwired to remember information presented in story-form, which means that this type of writing has incredible potential for those of us who are educators.)

The other reason I loved the film may seem silly in comparison, but here goes: I loved that Zuckerberg wore hoodies and flip flops to meetings with high-powered attorneys and high-level executives. Recently I've been thinking a lot about the claim that we, as educators, make to our students about behaving in "professional" or "academic" ways; we tell them that they must dress a certain way to be taken seriously, that they must speak and write in a certain way to get ahead. We give this advice because we know that they have a better chance of finding success if they work within the established systems; we know that fighting the system is very hard work. While that advice is likely true 99% of the time, I love the idea that some people say, "Screw the system!" instead of "Work the system." Nothing brings me greater joy than small revolutions (even one-man revolutions will do), and so I loved Mark Zuckerberg for refusing to ditch that hoodie. The fact that he's a billionaire now gives each kid out there the hope that the way he speaks or the way he wears his jeans or the way he does his hair is actually just as ok as any other way, even if the world tries to convince him otherwise. Norms are only norms because we all agree on them--they aren't "natural" or "normal;" they're just pervasive, and Zuckerberg's attire implicitly points that out. I dig it.

I also love the fact that there's at least one CEO out there in the land of capitalism who believes in a higher standard than just making money. Art is not dead yet! The film doesn't completely explain Zuckerberg's reasons for rejecting advertisers as sources of income for Facebook (he just claims that Facebook will lose its "cool" factor if he allows advertising dollars to enter the picture), but in an interview I read with him, he states that he believes in Facebook as an idea, as an art, and he doesn't want to sell it to the highest bidder so that it can be destroyed or revised in ways that are beyond his control (also the reason he hasn't yet taken the company public). 

Below are links to Facebook-related articles and essays that I love, if you have an interest in checking them out...

The Boundaries of a Breakup

Brave New World of Digital Intimacy

The Face of Facebook

Friday, September 10, 2010

Books I've Recently Loved: "What is the What" by Dave Eggers

I recently posted this piece to my new school's "book forum," so I thought I'd share...

Through a first-person narrative, Dave Eggers takes on the persona of Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” from Sudan’s southern region who is forced to flee his village after an Arab militia’s violent attack during the Sudanese civil war in the 1980s.  Uncertain of his family’s fate, Achak, along with thousands of other “Lost Boys,” is forced to make the harrowing journey on foot to a refugee camp in Ethopia.  The boys face incomprehensible tragedies along the way, within the borders of the camp, and even in the US once they arrive as refugees, but their journey speaks to the human capacity to survive and to the strength of the human spirit.  Eggers and Deng both assert that the story is a “true life novel,” raising interesting questions about the nature of truth and fiction and about the future of the novel as a literary genre.  Alternating between present and past/Africa and the US, the narrative technique offers readers a sense of the disconnect that Deng must have felt as he made his way so far from his home.

As a young boy, Deng’s father tells him a story, cautioning him against choosing “the What” — or the mystery choice — and instead choosing the known.  Deng, however, does not always have the luxury of that choice.  For this reason, his story is an important one as we contemplate what it means to live in a globalized world, a world in which we are all connected in what are often far from mutually equitable ways.  The novel raises questions about the boundaries and benefits of nation-states, the impact of imperialism in Africa, and the roles and responsibilities of the developed world and of individual citizens in reaching out to our human family around the world.  I would have to say that I found some of the most engaging parts of the novel to be the ones in which Deng encounters life in a so-called “First World” country for the first time in his life.  His confusion, horror, and wonder in response to life in the US can teach us a great deal about our own society and its social issues.  I would recommend this novel to anyone who wants to be both entertained and educated or who is looking for a way to gain a better understanding of the myriad ways there are to experience both the best and the worst of our globalized world.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labors of Love

In honor of Labor Day and "Back to School" workdays ahead, I'm posting this poem by Marge Piercy. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

To Be Of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

--Marge Piercy

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Scolding from Our Mother of Exiles

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

                    --Martin Niemoller, 1946

For my new work commute, I get to drive right by the Statue of Liberty every day. Each time I make the drive, I marvel at Our Lady of the Harbor, standing majestically, arm upstretched, and I feel so lucky to be just where I am. In recent weeks, though, it wouldn't surprise me if she turned around, sternly placed her hands on her hips, and shook her head disapprovingly at the land she represents and the city she overlooks. As Americans all over the country debate the building of an Islamic mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, she must wonder at our hypocrisy.

Time magazine is asking this week if America is "Islamophobic" (in short, yes), and every news pundit from NYC to Kabul is asking viewers to weigh in on the Lower Manhattan controversy. Those respondents who are opposed to the construction near Ground Zero seem mostly to argue that because it is so close to the site of the Twin Towers, the center would be an affront to the families and friends who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. There are two main points of concern for me with regard to this sentiment. The first is simply that Muslims, as a group, are not responsible for the actions of a few fanatics, just as Christians, as a group, are not responsible for Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Timothy McVeigh. Most frighteningly, though, it is not only in Manhattan that American citizens seem to oppose the construction of mosques. A protest took place in Murfreesboro, Tennessee last month against the construction of a mosque in that city (which is approximately 900 hundred miles from Ground Zero). Protesters offered the following insights, which I found courtesy of ABC News online:

Stan Whiteway (apparently aptly named) stated, "They seem to be against everything I believe in, and so I don't want them necessarily in my neighborhood."

Mark Walker claimed, "We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, we should not be promoting this."

From the Associated Press, I found that Bob Shelton said, "They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group."

Really?? REALLY?? Yes. Really. People think and say these sorts of things in 2010. Yikes.

So, how far is far enough, Manhattan? Two block is too close to Ground Zero, but is four blocks ok? What about 10 blocks? Will Tennessee be ok? What if Murfreesboro says that if Manhattan can block the construction of a mosque, so can they? What if every town says they don't want a mosque within their city limits? What if they decide that synagogues are equally problematic? What if they decide that Catholic churches are undesirable as well? Martin Niemoller's words could easily be frighteningly prophetic. Although the mainstream news media seemed mostly to focus on the portion of Time's recent poll that revealed that 24% of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, the more concerning numbers were the ones that revealed that 28% of respondents said they believe that Muslims should not be permitted to serve on the Supreme Court, and nearly one-third said that they don't believe that Muslims should be permitted to run for president. Nazi Germany, anyone? As someone who just wrote a thesis arguing that nation-states' first step in perpetrating genocide is depriving a certain group of citizenship status, these stats terrify me.

Perhaps the most interesting contradiction within this whole controversy is that of the 61% of Americans who oppose the Lower Manhattan mosque's construction, I'm willing to bet that a good many of them identify themselves as patriotic Americans, yet their very opposition to this project makes life so much harder for the men and women serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women in uniform work every single day on the mission of counterinsurgency, and a large part of completing that mission means both winning hearts and minds AND meeting with radical factions to attempt to bring them to the table of democracy. When Al-Jazeera broadcasts reports on the mosque in Manhattan and the staunch opposition to it that many Americans feel, how on earth will our servicemembers be able to convince the people of these regions that Americans are not there to destroy Islam or to discredit their faith? Furthermore, it seems to me that if our servicemembers can bring themselves to sit across the diplomatic table from radical fundamentalists in the name of bringing peace to the regions in which they serve, those of us back in the U.S. can find it in our hearts to accommodate a moderate Islamic cultural center whose goals are outreach and education. In other words, we have a responsibility to honor the service of these men and women and their willingness to put their lives on the line to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Middle East. To do otherwise would be unpatriotic.

In short, these men and women could really use some help from us in mounting an ideological offense. The U.S. government and military both recognize our inability to physically prevent every attack. It only takes one person to bring havoc, grief, and pain into the lives of thousands, and we already know that our defense mechanisms will fall short in certain situations. Which is why we must use our offense effectively. We need to show the world -- particularly the Muslim world -- that we practice what we preach and that we truly do welcome diversity of thought and experience. That diversity is what has formed the core of our American identity. If we want to preserve our reputation as the "land of the free," we can't be thinking in the terms of "us" and "them" -- we're all "we."

The most insightful comments I heard on the Lower Manhattan mosque debate came from a caller to WNYC/NPR. The caller identified himself as Yasser, and he said that he is a proponent of building the mosque at the initial site in Lower Manhattan because, as a resident of Lower Manhattan and as a father, he wants his children to grow up with the understanding that there is no contradiction between being a New Yorker, being a Muslim, and being an American. When the interviewer asked him if the mosque could represent the unity of those identity markers if it were just a bit further from Ground Zero, Yasser added that telling Muslims that they could build the mosque further away would be a lot like telling African-Americans during the civil rights era that if they just sat in the middle of the bus, it would make things a whole lot easier. I tend to think that our Mother of Exiles, standing her watch in the harbor, waiting to welcome those huddled masses, would feel similarly.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Filling Up My Plate

"If you aren't certain about things, if your mind is still open enough to question what you are seeing, you tend to look at the world with great care, and out of that watchfulness comes the possibility of seeing something that no one else has seen before."
-- Paul Auster

When I initially thought about moving back to my hometown, I worried that I'd have too much on my plate because I'd have so many family members and friends so close by. I never actually thought about my literal plate, though.

Prior to moving back to New Jersey, I hadn't eaten meat in over two years, but I've recently discovered that being a vegetarian is a lot more difficult in New Jersey than it is in California. Being a vegetarian in California is as common as, say, being an Italian in New Jersey -- many people are; it's just part of the demographic. Hence, in California, people always seem to ask dinner guests if they eat meat, restaurants always offer multiple vegetarian options, and there are even many specialty stores and restaurants that cater to the dietary preferences of vegetarian eaters. Here, not so much. The last time I visited New Jersey, my dad asked if chicken on the grill was good for dinner. When I reminded him that I didn't eat meat, he replied, exasperated, "For Christsake. Chicken's not meat." (I'm fairly certain that he does actually believe that.) Restaurants seem to be similarly confounded -- yesterday I had to order a proscuitto sandwich without the proscuitto, and the deli staff seemed to need multiple verbal confirmations that my order had been correctly recorded.

Perhaps, though, the most uncomfortable experience is being served meat as a dinner guest in someone else's home. My husband and I had dinner at his grandmother's house last year, and I politely declined her pot roast on account of the fact that I don't eat meat.  Her response: "But it's so tender!" After 10 minutes of attempting to explain (in as dinner-table appropriate terms as possible) that my decision not to eat meat did not hinge on its tenderness, I gave up and finally accepted that grandmothers -- particularly those who cook for Italian families -- do not speak vegetarian. When my host is a non-family member, though, I can't even muster the nerve to tell him or her that I don't eat meat. I take some, push it around on my plate, bury it with my side dishes, and then bring my own plate to the sink when we're done eating. This routine is stressful, and it often leaves me quite hungry (and drunk if there's alcohol served, as I can't hold my liquor on an empty stomach).

I've recently wondered whether life would be easier if I just ate meat every now and again, so I tried it. As a dinner guest a few weeks ago, I ate a friend's baked ziti with meat sauce. All seemed to be going well until my stomach started gurgling and churning and generally urging me to hurry on up to the bathroom ASAP. As it turns out, when your body hasn't eaten something like meat in years, it forgets just how to digest it without incident.

So it seems to me that the best course of action would be to eat meat with some regularity, so as to avoid what would henceforth be known to my husband as The Baked Ziti Incident. Doing so, however, requires some sacrifice of what I see as My Principles. There are several somewhat vague reasons that I gave up meat, the usual suspects, really: environmental reasons involving the destruction of forestland to accommodate grazing land, ethical reasons related to the fact that we could feed the world if we used grazing land to grow grains instead, ethical reasons involving the ways in which animals are raised and slaughtered, health reasons related to hormones and antibiodics in food. (Notice that none of these reasons actually involves disliking meat -- I do like it, which makes it extra tempting to eat it when it magically appears on my dinner plate!) I should confess here that I'm not even really a vegetarian because I've never quite been able to give up seafood, which technically makes me a pescetarian. I tend not to identify myself as such to other people, though, because no one knows what it means, and then I feel like I sound even more pretentious.

So, here I am. I'm trying to negotiate a balance between my desire to honor my principles, my desire to avoid being a giant pain in the ass to those I love, and my desire to eat meat just because it tastes good. I think the solution is simply to be less anal -- eat meat when you feel like eating it and attempt to do so every so often. The problem with that solution, though, is that it means learning to be comfortable in the gray area. For me, absolutes, ironically, tend to be easier to live by. For some people, myself included, being OCD about certain things is actually easier than not being that way. It's harder to live in the middle than on either end because when you're on the ends, you know right where you are. In the middle, you have to make a kind of peace with your own amorphousness; you have to become comfortable in constant state of mild uncertainty. But, in the end, I think I choose uncertainty. It's harder, but it also leaves room for change and adaptation, things I feel are almost always good for me. We'll see how I do...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Move Over, Gutenberg

Today I'm thinking about technology; I'm considering the ways in which technology both links and divides us. I'm not thinking specifically about social networking sites (though I am sure that many a psych Ph.D. dissertation has been written on just that topic in recent years), but instead I'm thinking simply of access to (or lack of access to) information and what that access or lack thereof means for human society.

This afternoon, my sister and I met her husband in mid-town Manhattan for lunch and then decided to enjoy some ridiculously delicious cupcakes in Bryant Park. As we sat at a table chatting and enjoying our indulgence, a gaggle of teenagers paraded by us, cell phone cameras a-flashing in the direction of one teenager in particular who seemed to be being crushed by his throngs of adoring fans. My sister's husband asked one star-struck fan who she and her crowd were following, and she responded (with obvious annoyance at our lack of celebrity knowledge) that they were following Timothy Delaghetto -- just like that, all one word. Hmmm, we thought. Are we in the presence of some wildly famous person that we are too uncool to know about? Immediately, my sister's husband used his Blackberry to google this Timothy Delaghetto, and we discovered that he is an up-and-coming "Asian hip hop artist." Ok then.

While it would be difficult to argue that having instantaneous access to this sort of basically useless information is going to give us some kind of leg up on the rest of human society, I think that having access to information of any sort does, at the very least, separate people into categories: those who can be in the know and those who can't. I am wholly convinced that 90% of the apps available on the iphone basically give useless information -- where the nearest Starbucks is located, the title of the song currently playing on the radio (Shezam!), who the best-selling Asian hip hop artist is (ok, I don't know if they have an app for that, but I'm willing to bet it's out there or soon-to be, judging by the apparent popularity of Mr. Delaghetto). However, it's that 10% of useful information that iphone/Blackberry/Droid users can access immediately that does give them that leg up, such as when the next train leaves Port Authority or which way is west -- I needed both of those pieces of info today, and, as I am smartphone-less, I was forced to do the old-fashioned thing and Figure It Out. So, one way that technology separates us now is into People Who Can Find Out Faster and Easier and People Who Can Find Out Still Within a Reasonable Stretch of Time and With Only Slightly More Effort -- not such an enormous difference, in my view.

But, while smartphones may still be luxuries that not every human must have to survive, I think that internet access at some point in the day is a mandatory requirement for full and successful participation in our society today. After our cupcakes in the park, my sister and I headed over to the mid-town branch of the New York Public Library this afternoon (the place where Carrie and Big were supposed to wed in the first Sex and the City movie! Ahem....I mean, the place where one can find access to 15 million books and visual media and witness stunning architectural design and feel intellectual power pulsing through the air). Here, we got to see one of the 48 surviving Gutenberg Bibles, which was on display with a plaque noting that scholars generally agree that Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440 was "the greatest achievement of the second millenium." If the printing press was revolutionary because it allowed wider access to information, how do we even begin to understand the impact of the worldwide web?

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her account of an undercover assignment as a low-wage worker in America's restaurants, hotels, and Big Box stores. She paints a moving portrait of what it means to live hand-to-mouth and work 70+ hours per week, but because she did her investigative reporting in the late 90s before internet access was a staple in every middle-class household, her book doesn't touch on what it means to be without internet access. I'd love to see an revised edition in which she comments on this huge difference that separates 1998 from 2010. The other day, as my husband spent hours comparing NJ car insurance quotes online, and I spent hours researching my choices for a primary care doctor, I wondered how on earth someone would one go about finding affordable car insurance or setting up one's healthcare plan without the internet? I realize that the telephone still works for these tasks, but the hours on hold alone would be enough to drive even the most bargain-conscious shopper or the most health-conscious individual to just sign up with one of the first two or three organizations found. So, technology also divides us into Those Who Have Options and Those Who Take What They Can Get With the Time They Have to Get It.

I think the coolest thing about the New York Public Library is that any library card-holder can borrow a laptop for several hours at a time and get free internet access within the library. While borrowing a laptop to use within the confines of the library is not as convenient as owning one and having internet access in the home, at least it's a start. It's a recognition by a well-respected public institution that the division between Those Who Have Options and Those Who Take What They Can Get With the Time They Have to Get It is one that is just too big to accept if we want to continue to call ourselves a democratic society. There are certainly civil rights issues at stake within the issues surrounding access to technology, and I can only hope that more schools, city halls, courthouses, and other tax-payer funded institutions follow the Library's lead.

I'm going to end this post by recounting, to the best of my ability, one side of a conversation that I overheard on the bus today, which amused me greatly, but also made me a little sad. I sat behind a guy of about my age, obviously coming home from a long day of work who was talking on his cell phone:

Guy: Yeah, Ma. I'm here.

Guy: Alright, it's on? Good. Ok. Now click on Firefox.

Guy: It looks like...a fire fox. Like a fox on fire.

Guy: No. It's orange. Maybe blue too.

Guy: Yes. That's it. Now click on it.

Guy: Are you double clicking?

Guy: Like, click-click -- real fast. With your index finger.

Guy: No -- the other one. The index finger that's on the mouse. Click-click.

Guy: Try it again.

Guy: Ok. Now click on the link on the homepage. It's in blue.  It has a lot of funny letters and numbers at the end...like a long line of funny letters and numbers.

Guy: You gotta work with me, Ma. Tell me what you see.

Guy: I'm not getting mad. I'm not...

Guy: (exhales deeply) My voice isn't annoyed, Ma.

Guy: No, it's not. I'm just....Don't get frustrated now, Ma. Why do you sound all frantic?

Guy: I'm not! I'm being completely calm,Ma!

Guy: Ok. Try it again.

Guy: Ma, listen to me. It might take a minute. It has to download.

Guy: What, 'download'? It's like retrieving information from another site.

Guy:  A site is a webpage. Like one page of the worldwide web. The Internet.

Guy: Well, not exactly like a book. But maybe kind of. Anyway, you don't need to know that now, Ma. Did it download?

Guy: Christ.

Guy: I'm not mad, Ma. I'm not mad. It's just that these are like the basics. Like stuff everyone knows.

Guy: I know! That's why I'm helping you!

Guy: Hello? Ma? Hello?

Guy: Damnit.(hangs up)

So, technology also divides us into Those Who Know How and Those Who Need to Know How. Unfortunately, this divide seems to fall along age lines, which is sad. This guy and his mom could be sending each other funny forwards or Youtube videos, sharing pictures and music, and generally connecting in more ways, but they aren't. Instead, they're fighting. Maybe I should have told him that the New York Public Library also offers free weekly technology-related courses, such as "Email I" and "The Internet I: The Basics!"

Teachers, like me, are constantly bombarded with pressure to "use technology in the classroom," and we are given so many instructions as to how and when we should use various sorts of technology with our students. The one question that never seems to be addressed, though, is why. I think there's sort of this circuitous logic at work that people are afraid to question: we should use technology because people use technology. For most people, though, this argument is not terribly compelling. Talk to us, however, about equal access, civil rights, generation gaps, and saving time, and we'll be all ears.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

If You Can Make It There...

...you must have very few personal possessions and truly enjoy laundromats.  You should also enjoy walking up five flights of stairs to reach your home, and you probably shouldn't mind paying 8 dollars for a Miller Lite. After a week of apartment hunting in Manhattan, I told my husband on Sunday that I quit NYC. I wanted so much to believe that I was cool enough and low-maintenance enough to pare down my life to fit into 600 square feet, but, alas, I am just not.

When I thought about renting a tiny apartment in the city, I felt excited because I saw it as an opportunity to really simplify -- to rid ourselves of all of the unnecessary commodities we've acquired over the years and return to just the basics, just the absolute essentials. The problem, however, is that I seem to have a lot of essentials! In college, if I had contact solution and a toothbrush, I could pretty much crash anywhere (and I'm not even sure that I really felt that the toothbrush qualified as an essential -- more of a convenience). Now, to spend the night outside of my own home, I pack a bag that includes the following: make-up remover, night face cream, facial lotion with sunscreen for daytime, my Sonicare, dental floss, a pair of pajamas, slippers or flip-flops, a change of clothes for the morning, and two different hairbrushes (I'll even bring my blowdryer if I feel that the one in my host's home/hotel is not equal to my own). And it's not just in the way of personal toiletries that I've become high maintenance -- I also seem to have become irreversibly accustomed to having a washer and dryer and a dishwasher within the confines of my living space (how un-green, how uncool!).

I keep trying to justify my high maintenance by telling myself that as a woman of almost 30, I will only spend more and more time at home. NYC has a fantastic nightlife with awesome bars that stay open until 4 am, but these days, nine times out of ten, I'm asleep before midnight on the average Saturday night. This realization among women of my age, I am convinced, is what keeps Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, and Williams-Sonoma financially afloat. We women need a creative outlet, a way to expend energy. Once karaoke contests and drinking games lose their novelty -- somewhere in one's late 20s -- it seems that we turn our sights to coordinating throw pillows and redecorating our master baths. It's almost like we feel like if we aren't going to be out, in needs to get a lot more enticing. I'm not sure that this sort of hobby -- if home improvement/decorating can even be classified as such -- is really a good thing. In a lot of ways, it means buying into the kind of consumerism that I love to hate, but that I also can't seem to resist.

I'd like to believe that I'm not the kind of person who covets stainless steel appliances and granite countertops above the more practical conveniences of apartment living (like being near transportation and having enough closet space), but because I haven't been happy yet with an apartment that lacks these aesthetic accoutrements, I'm going to blame my materialism on my fear that moving home means that I am right back at the beginning again, completing a circle as opposed to moving forward. Perhaps I'm seeing a nice apartment and all of its trappings as some kind of indicator that I am, in fact, making progress, moving up and going forward. Hey look, everyone! I went from carpet to hardwood and from tile to granite! See -- I am making progress after all!

For now, I'm not going to beat myself up too much for being a little too attached to the material world. Leaving San Diego was tough, so if having some nicer features gets me excited about our new residence, so be it. So, in an effort to be able to afford those creature comforts (and have space enough for them), we're refocusing our apartment search efforts across the Hudson in Jersey City and Hoboken, where things are a lot more affordable. I may not get to become a New Yorker, but at least I won't be hand-washing dishes. Maybe I am more practical than I give myself credit for after all...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Every 'Drunk Man' Has a Family

Some people are daredevils. While I am certainly not one of them, I appreciate the spirit of adventure that drives them, and so I have collected a few as friends over the years who have greatly enriched my life with their commitment to fun and their love of excitement. These kinds of people are always a blast to be around, and they provide much of the fodder for the stories that we most often recount and laugh over. Of course, daredevil friends are also always an emotional risk as a result of their antics as well.

We lost a daredevil last week after he jumped off the Venice Beach pier at 2 am on the 4th of July, and the loss has left a huge hole in his family and friends' universe. While every loss of life is tragic, losing a daredevil is a special kind of loss for those who knew him or her. Because daredevils seem more full of life than the average joe, when their lives are cut short, it feels like a great force of passion and vivacity has been sucked from the world, and the world is a considerably duller and plainer place for it. 

Unfortunately, when a daredevil dies, some people seem to lose sight of the fact that a precious human life has been lost and choose simply to lambast his carelessness or irresponsibility without regard for his grieving family. The LA Times ran the following headline for our daredevil's story on July 5th: "Drunk Man Jumps from Venice Pier, Search Underway." Well, yes, he was drunk, but referring to him as 'drunk man' seems to me to suggest that his death is somehow amusing or otherwise entertaining. For his family and friends, this loss is anything but humorous, and while they sat up for days waiting for news of their loved one from the Coast Guard, they had to read that story. The headline demonstrates the power of the nuances of language; 'intoxicated man' is not the same thing as 'drunk man,' and I believe that the journalist could have made a better choice in terms of wording. 

The headline also brought to mind many memories of reading shocking headlines about unusual deaths -- "Man Eaten by Pet Iguana" or "Woman Dies of a Broken Heart." Of course, the news media has a responsibility to keep the public informed of unusual events, but there's certainly a line between information and literary rubbernecking. I think another reason that papers run these stories of unusual or sudden deaths is in an attempt to offer some sort of didactic lesson to their readership. While there are lessons to be taken from any accident, in the end, an accident is, by definition, something one can't always prevent. Jumping off the pier was not a good idea, but I can't help but feel that we have all taken unnecessary risks and done stupid things (particularly when drinking). The only difference between our mistakes and our daredevil's is that he had bad luck: the rip currents were strong, the night was dark, etc. His death is a reminder of the preciousness of our delicate human lives, and it is also a reminder of our own vulnerability. In the end,  every 'drunk man' has a family who loves him and misses him and whose world is irrevocably changed by his death, and our words should reflect our understanding of the sensitivity of grieving loved ones' hearts and demonstrate our empathy for them, instead of compounding their suffering to sell a few extra papers or to get a laugh in the midst of their pain. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Moments that Broke the Monotony of a 3000-Mile Drive

Just outside of San Diego, California:
Him: I'm going to call my dad.  (Turns on Bluetooth.) CALL FRANK ADDICKS.

Voice of I-phone: Calling Frank A Dick.


Somewhere in the middle of Utah, listening to a long narrative country song on the only station that got reception:
Him: I don't get it. Did they abort the baby?

Me: I'm not sure...It sounds like it could have been a miscarriage.

(Silence. Both listening closely to the chorus.)

Him: Nope. Definitely abortion.

On the golf course in Grand Junction, Colorado:
Me: I don't think I can get it on the green from here.

Aunt MJ: Sure you can. Remember the power of positive thinking.

(I actually make contact with the ball, and it actually goes onto the green.)

Aunt MJ: See? If positive thinking can do that for your golf game, just think what it can do for the rest of your life.

Just west of Colby, Kansas:
Me: Look, honey! That sign says that this farm has a five-legged steer! And the world's largest prairie dog!

45 minutes west of Salina, Kansas:
A billboard advertisement reads: "Come to 'Yarns': The Second Friendliest Yarn Store in the Universe!"

Various other billboards in Kansas:
       "Jesus Saves."

       "Jesus Saves. Pornography Destroys."

       "Jesus."

       "Jesus is Lord."

       "Jesus is God."

      "Come to know Jesus."

      "Fear God."

      "Jesus is love."

      "Find Jesus."

      Giant depiction of Jesus with wheat as his staff.

      Giant depiction of Jesus on the cross.

      Giant depiction of Jesus bathed in light.

      "Adoption not abortion." (very popular -- we saw too many to count)

      "People who live in sin propagate sin. There is no 'gay marriage'."

Him: Kansas sucks.

Me: Amen.

Coming off of an exit ramp in Topeka, Kansas:
(Fireworks sound. The dog hurdles herself into the front seat and dives under the steering wheel, alternating jamming on the brake and the gas. I can't get to either pedal.)

Me: Oh my God! We're going to die!

(We don't die. I find the brake and we coast into a Burger King parking lot before we get to the upcoming intersection.)

10 miles from Chatham, New Jersey (final destination, for now):
Him: Moving back by your relatives is probably a lot like going to prison in the sense that the old prison adage probably applies: "Kick someone's ass on the first day, or become someone's bitch."

In Chatham, New Jersey:
We are currently living with my mom, my dad, my sister, her husband, 4 dogs, and 3 cats. Apartment-hunting is top priority.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Local Monuments: The Practice of Appreciating the Stars


"Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course...Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television." - Paul Hawken, Commencement Address, May 2009


On my last day in San Diego, I found myself busy running errands, cleaning, strategizing a way to pack the cars, and generally feeling equal parts stress and sadness. I decided to grab a quick lunch and picked up a sandwich, intending to eat it in the car on my way to my next task. But then I remembered the above portion of Paul Hawken's commencement address, which I had read only a few days before, and I pulled over.

If this was my last day in a city I love, I needed to see something in it. But what? There's so much to see! Funny how I've lived in San Diego for seven years and never once had that thought. In fact, in the last year, my husband and I have traveled to Sonoma and Seattle and Santa Barbara and Joshua Tree to sightsee. We never once thought to sightsee in our own backyard, although there is much of beauty to take in.

Perhaps because I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, the story of a young Mexican cook whose life intersects with those of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky, I decided to finish my half-eaten sandwich at Chicano Park, a local monument that is literally beneath the Coronado Bridge on the city side and, thus, a five minute drive from my front door, though I have never once been to see it.


The park is located in Barrio Logan, a historically chicano and Mexican-immigrant neighborhood, settled before the turn of the century, and it came about in the 1970s, after a nonviolent takeover of the land by the people of the neighborhood in opposition to Caltrans' plan to build a highway patrol parking lot on the space promised for the construction of a neighborhood park. Chicano Park holds the largest collection of outdoor murals in the entire country, and they depict various elements of chicano culture, history, politics, and spiritual beliefs; the effect is one of resistance to historical oppressions and neglect. There are depictions of Latino revolutionaries and visionaries, such as Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevarra, Fidel Castro, and Cesar Chavez, as well as depictions of artists like Kahlo and Rivera and Christian imagery of the Virgin of Gaudalupe and Mother Teresa. Perhaps the most striking image is of an Aztec warrior, wearing an elaborate headdress, carrying a decorated shield, and pointing north. 


For me, the fact that the murals are painted on the pillars of the Coronado Bridge, which was constructed to run right through Barrio Logan in order to offer Coronado residents and tourists the option to drive directly onto the island instead of relying only on the ferry to cross the bay, is the most inspiring part of the park. Instead of accepting its prescribed position as a second-class community, the neighborhood residents declared their beliefs, their cultural contributions, their history, and their worth on the very structure that sought to make these things invisible.

Through a little Wikipedia research, I learned that the bridge was only the proverbial icing on the cake in terms of the state and federal governments' transgressions against the people of the Barrio Logan community. The US military built a base at 32nd Street, effectively taking over all access points to the bay, and the state of California opted to build Interstate 5 through the center of the neighborhood, which encouraged the establishment of industrial sites within the neighborhood. But, nonetheless, on the day that I visited the park, children chased each other around the playground, a couple sat talking in the Mayan-style kiosk, teenagers skated on the sidewalk, a man read at a picnic table, and a girl walked around taking pictures of the murals and sculptures and statues and felt overwhelmed with inspiration.

I hope I don't forget the joy I found in seeing a local monument -- not only is it impressive to see beautiful things, but there is something uniquely and personally gratifying about knowing that you live in a place that values and displays such beauty, that offers it up, for free, to people who want to appreciate it. I'm glad that I am one of those people who had the chance to appreciate Chicano Park, and I plan to be one of those people who appreciates the local sights -- wherever local is for me -- from now on.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Oops" Moments with the Movers

1. I accidentally packed up my Yankees jersey in one of the boxes we won't see for a month or more. Though I've had it for over a year, I've actually never worn it for fear of the rampant Yankee-hating that is a staple of every city's culture outside of NYC. I was looking forward to sporting Mariano Rivera's number in sports bars all over NY this month in hopes of creating the illusion that A) I am a real New Yorker and B) I know something about baseball.

2. I took the Lord's name in vain (twice) in front of a mover who introduced himself as Reverend Jarret. I apologized both times, and I'm now praying that he won't "lose" our stuff.

3. I keep all of our past Halloween costumes in a Rubbermaid container, and, for lack of a better storage option in our tiny San Diego apartment, I keep that container under our bed. Well, when Reverent Jarret lifted up the mattress to find a box full of feather boas, a cop costume, a jailbird shirt, a pirate hat, a flapper dress, and various other get-ups, he undoubtedly thought that we were more exciting than we actually are. I left the room immediately and tried to avoid him for the rest of the day.

4. Cali chewed a hole in our Aerobed, so we'll be spending the next two nights sleeping on the hardwood floor.

5. We seem to have severely overestimated how much crap will actually fit into our cars, so the post office is the first stop tomorrow morning.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

To be a part of a community means to be present in multiple social circles at once, to have ties that bind across each of these circles and connect you to these various individuals and groups in multiple ways. For example, you know you are part of a community when you and a colleague discover a mutual friend or when you find out that your husband's friend is dating your colleague's cousin's friend's sister. In other words, when you can successfully play "Six Degrees of Separation (or Kevin Bacon)," you're in.

But getting in is tough work -- especially when you have no blood relatives or former classmates or childhood friends to call upon to help you tie those knots onto each circle. In the beginning, I was just me (or us, depending on whether or not my husband was deployed). But now, seven years later, I can say that I am most definitely part of a community here in San Diego. I can also say that being a part of that community is my single proudest life accomplishment.

I suppose I feel so proud because of the sheer determination that it took to make my place. I mean, quite frankly, making new friends is awkward. There are long silences to be filled between sips of wine, and I am wholly convinced that it takes more moxie to ask someone out platonically than it takes to ask someone out romantically.Asking someone out romantically is easy -- TV and movies have provided us countless examples of methodology and approach. In asking someone out platonically, however, you're definitely treading new ground.

"Ummm....do you want to get together for lunch sometime...or drinks...or something? I mean...not in, like, a lesbian way, but...just, like, to hang out?"

Weird.

I am also not a naturally outgoing person. In fact, for most of my life, people thought I was a snob because I was so quiet. (Since my dad is an aspiring truck driver and my mom is a dental hygenist, I'm going to go ahead and rule out the possibility that it's on account of my wealth that people made that assumption.) But coming to San Diego as a new college grad with no friends or family within a 1000-mile radius helped me to become outgoing. The learning curve was steep, but I climbed it, and I am so thankful that I made that climb because when I look at all of the different human connections I've forged over the years here, I know that I have grown and changed as a result of each one. I am not quiet and shy anymore...thanks to my community.


My husband and I threw a little farewell picnic in Balboa Park yesterday, and I could not have been more moved by the turnout of friends, neighbors, colleagues, and teammates who came to wish us well. When people think of making "Bucket Lists," I think they tend to imagine backpacking across Europe or skydiving or swimming with dolphins, and while I don't doubt that those sorts of exotic adventures are fulfilling  and exciting, I have this piece of advice for Bucket List writers: Move far away, at least for a little bit, and make a community. It makes for the most exhilarating adventure and the most incredible sense of accomplishment this world has to offer.

So, here's to making new circles and to rediscovering a place in the old ones. We'll find you yet, Kevin Bacon...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

JBJ: Words of Wisdom

My feelings for Jon Bon Jovi have always fallen somewhere between sacred reverence and girlish crush – which is perhaps why I am willing to give him the intellectual benefit of the doubt when I consider his choice of song title “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” I like to believe that his choice of interrogative vs. declarative sentence was Purposeful and Significant.  I like the idea that he is not exactly saying, “Yes, you can go home,” though the question seems to have that connotation. He also isn’t saying that you can’t -- he’s simply asking, “Who says you can’t go home?” Because I’m asking that question myself right now as my husband and I prepare to leave southern California after seven years of being San Diegans to resume our status as native New Jerseyans (and possibly become New Yorkers), I am intrigued by his query. This blog is an attempt to nibble away at the edges of that question.