Category Archives: Writing with Heart

What did I just say? I can’t remember but WordPress will

The EDC  MOOC begins in just under a week. Various sites have been abuzz: Facebook, Twitter, Google+. I’m impressed and inspired. Today, I spent a couple of hours playing around with Google+. I’ve been an active FB user. I’ve not been a very active Tweeter. I find I love book for education: I FB message my students updates and suggestions for reading and heads-up notices for what’s coming next. It’s easier than using our university email–really. I get to them immediately and I immediately see if they got my messages. I like to use Twitter in class for students to share responses to a discussion, presentation, video. I forget to use it sometimes, but it’s been such a great tool for memory. Search for the class hash tag to find everyone’s summary of learning for the day–that’s learning like a boss. I also love to have students take pictures of what we write on the board. Sometimes I write a lot, sometimes they write everything. But we need evidence. And we need to post that on FB or through Twitter or on our blogs. Memory is vital to learning–but how much room do we really have in our brains at any one time?

I can’t remember what I’ve said from one day to the next (I guess this is what Plato feared would happen when we all started writing everything down–or I vaguely remember something like that from classical rhetoric class). How do I deal with my memory being sometimes lame? I write notes in my iPhone. I write blogs to remind me what I said was due (hoping it’s not too far from the original syllabus!). I record voice memos to remind me of points I think are important, things I must due, projects that are due, reports I have to write. I used to call my home answering machine (or my work voice mail) and leave myself reminders. That was the only way I could do it other than writing with ink on paper. Now I have options.

1-4 of 7 Skills Students Need Now and in the Future (Tony Wagner)

1-4 of 7 Skills Students Need Now and in the Future (Tony Wagner)

I still use ink on paper, but I tend to lose those notes–I’ll never give up doing it–that kind of physicality triggers a different kind of remembering for me, but the phone is great. And I have never misplaced my phone. Like my keys and sunglasses–never lost a one of these things. Never. (I know–knocking on wood right now.)

So, for students who are social media savvy (at least), here is a way to remember what’s happened–pick your way of remembering–use the digital online “sticky note” of your choice. By linking all the students together through several media, though, we stand a better chance of actually learning from one another. Like the old school taking of notes with pencil on notebook paper, it’s a crap shoot if they actually take advantage of the technology to learn. But I can try, can’t I?

The two images I’m including in this blog post are from notes I took today while watching a video posted in Google+ by a student enrolled in the EDC MOOC community. Tony Wagner is the speaker in the video–he talks about what students need to learn in order to be successful–not content but skills. I cannot find a single thing wrong with this list. I took handwritten notes because that was handy (left my dongle at the office for my dual screen, so I’m stuck with my laptop only–such a first world problem). I didn’t feel like working on my iPhone or my iPad. I didn’t want to hunt and peck for letters, but actually write out what I was hearing. I could actually go to the web and cut and paste his seven points–there are lots of locations where these could be found, but I liked writing today. It felt good.

5-7 of the 7 Skill Students Need (Tony Wagner)

5-7 of the 7 Skill Students Need (Tony Wagner)

Mainly, it felt great to hand write notes because I haven’t done it much lately (I’m regularly without a pen in public), and I find it sort of makes me think differently–engages a different part of my brain, I guess–like it’s important to lift weights with your arms AND legs so your body doesn’t get oddly proportioned!

Notice: number 5–obviously going to be my favorite. Wagner says students need “effective oral and written communication.” Yup. If I was a cowboy, I’d say, “Damn straight.” Every set of learning objectives I’ve ever run across lists this as crucial. Is it not the case that fuzzy writing is emblematic of fuzzy thinking, that lack of voice leads to boring prose (and loss of reader interest), that persuasion and point of view are too infrequently managed well and with grace. I get it. I teach writing. I am a writer. I am also a writing consultant. I see it all, from basic writers to grad students to senior civilian and military global leaders–brilliance must be articulated and communicated to truly be brilliance. Innovation and creativity? Not going anywhere without articulation and communication. Want to be a leader? Good luck if you can’t say what you need to say to the right audience in the right way. Want to capture and keep a reader’s attention? You’re not going to do it with painfully dull prose littered with jargon and acronyms. For a MOOC learner, I think number 5 must be the most important point–mostly what we have is writing, some oral communication (Google+ Hang Out–which I’m trying tomorrow)–but a LOT of written communication. I’m betting the farm that MOOCers who are successful, have most of these seven skills. They are motivated and savvy learners already, or they have what it takes to get that way in a hurry.

For instance: I didn’t want to learn Google+ because I’m busy. It’s the first couple of weeks of the term, and I have had a lot to do. I am overwhelmed by paperwork, class work, my own work, publishing, innovating, etc.–all the things teachers and administrators do at the beginning of a semester. I whined online that I didn’t have room for one more thing in my brain. I couldn’t learn one more thing. (And if I forget I said that, I have an archive of my complaining. Great.). But my blog group for the EDC MOOC is going to Hang Out tomorrow on Google+. Today, then I decided I’d spend some time learning. And it’s not hard. I was just too scattered to handle it. BUT here’s what I knew would save me: the internet. I just “Googled” how to use Google+. There are tons of videos online. I watched a few. Done.

I did the same thing when I needed to learn WordPress–I watched a few videos then dove in. Nothing is impossible. Or it feels that way. The only constraint for me is time now. And do I need to remember everything about how to FB, Tweet, Google+ or WordPress? No. The internet is not only a repository for information, it is my memory, too. I know. It’s risky. What if all this cyber existence ceases because of an apocalyptic event? So what. We’ll have a few hearty folk who will survive and pass on the few books that make it. I have total hope for the preservation of humanity–perhaps not all humanity, but some, surely will get past a meteoric collision.

The point is that our students don’t need to remember everything anymore. But they still need to think. They need to be able to use everything they can find out there in the very big and wide world in positive ways that will enhance the conditions in which they can acquire these skills and increase their ability to acquire these skills (thanks, Tony Wagner):

1. Problem-solving and critical thinking;
2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
3. Agility and adaptability;
4. Initiative and entrepreneurship;
5. Effective written and oral communication;
6. Accessing and analyzing information; and
7. Curiosity and imagination.

It ain’t easy–that’s for sure. Just look at the MOOCers who have been most active. No slackers here. No one asking others to learn for them or spoon feed them the content. Did they get that way in the last two months. Not likely. Chances are they came to this MOOC with the desire to learn, so that’s what they have been doing, in order to get ready to learn in the course. “Overachievers,” one could mutter and dismiss it at that. But there’s more to it, I think. There really isn’t any content to learn when the class hasn’t even started. But there is a condition which now exists, which everyone has created, in which we can truly “get” and use all seven of these skills to be better learners, better workers, better employers, better citizens, better people.

We are peer teaching ourselves what we know about e-learning and digital culture–we created the content, and we are making it possible to do more than any one of us could do alone. I’ve learned more from my peers’ posts than I could have in a traditional f2f class in this amount of time–even with an expert leading the way–because the knowledge they’ve shared is vastly different from vastly different perspectives. We are all teachers and learners at this point. Would all students do that–be this active? No. And not all of the EDC MOOCers will either. Some will fade, just like in any educational situation. We are all capable of self-failing. But we are also capable of so much more. It’s like watching a perfectly timed rock concert to see how everyone is working together BEFORE the class has even begun. The Beatles after 10,000 hours of performing. Inspiration times infinity.

In the meantime, I have to transition to getting ready for my coming week at school. I have to let this thinking go. Wait. Wait. How will I remember what I was doing? What I was thinking? What did I just say? Check my Facebook status if you want to know. Read my blog. Check my Twitter. Find me on Google+. I love that I don’t have to remember any of this post. It will all be here for me tomorrow to check (perhaps, to my everlasting shame I will have said something idiotic, or committed the heinous of all errors: the typo; I know I will have included several fragments; they bubble up or burst into my writing like hot, boiling sulfurous geysers from the bowels of the planet–oh well, no pain, no gain).

And when I despair that education is sliding down a slippery slope into intellectual chaos because of all our online shenanigans–Johnny can’t Read/Johnny Can’t Write because [fill in the latest literacy depleting demon]–I remember that all of this work I’m doing online, writing, reading, posting, updating my status (and the work that I’m making my students do) is sometimes actually based on thinking. OH MAN. How cool is that? I totally don’t care what Plato might think.

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Filed under MOOC Journeys, Writing and Identity, Writing with Heart

I’m mad for MOOCs, or will MOOCs make me mad?

I’ve just re-read “The Year of the MOOC” by Laura Pappano (NY Times online). Besides feeling terribly hip and trendy, I’m so glad I stumbled onto this again after a week or so of vacation. I needed to get my context back for what I’m doing and what goals I need to set for myself. The spring semester is nearly upon me, and it will whack me upside the head in a hurry if I don’t step lively.

Context. It’s starting to come back. I’ll need to re-read Facebook posts and other blogs and get my Twitter self in order soon, but it’s coming back.

One thing I’m doing to get my context groove back is to think about why I’m doing this MOOC thing. Why, oh, why did I think taking on a MOOC was a good idea while teaching two new preps, running a grad writing center, a comp program, revising comp 2 curriculum, planning for a summer basic writing bridge course, writing two articles, and planning for three practicum for teachers for the spring (and planning a class trip to NYC and then a summer abroad class)? Why? Because it’s just 3-5 hours a week for five weeks. And I could learn something vital. I need to learn to be vital actually.

Goal number one was: I hoped to see what all the MOOC fuss was about. I’m intrigued by pedagogy because I’m a teacher, and I want to always try new ways of learning and teaching so that I can bring the max goodness to my own students–whether there are seven or 7,000. And what does that mean anyway to teach a small town’s worth of folks? What does “teach” mean, then if the instructor isn’t all hands-on?

While I wanted to know what MOOCing was all about from a teaching perspective, I’m also a voracious learner, a life-long learner, and my interests vary from the NFL to string theory to Jane Austen to the zombie apocalypse. I hope to never stop being a student. My purpose in the world is to learn and pass that on. It’s an educational Buddha thing–and if I don’t play by those rules, they revoke my educational Buddha card. And that would suck. So I had to be a student in a MOOC. (And artificial intelligence or Python wouldn’t have been good courses for me to try.)

But what do I really want to know from this particular course? I don’t know. That’s right. No clue.

Learning objectives for the credit version of this course are these (or so I believe–if you’re taking the course at U of Edinburgh, EDUA11149):

EDUA11149 course objectives... a bit fuzzy, but you get it.

EDUA11149 course objectives… a bit fuzzy, but you get it.

If you want to see previous credit courses and student work, you can check here. The professor for those credit courses is one of the instructors for the MOOC E-Learning and Digital Cultures that begins January 28, 2013.

These objectives make sense for a credit course. For our MOOC, the instructors suggest that we’ll be doing the following:

On this course, you will be invited to think critically and creatively about e-learning, to try out new ideas in a supportive environment, and to gain fresh perspectives on your own experiences of teaching and learning. The course will begin with a ‘film festival’, in which we’ll view a range of interesting short films and classic clips, and begin discussing how these might relate to the themes emerging from the course readings. We will then move on to a consideration of multimodal literacies and digital media, and you’ll be encouraged to think about visual methods for presenting knowledge and conveying understanding. The final part of the course will involve the creation of your own visual artefact; a pictorial, filmic or graphic representation of any of the themes encountered during the course, and you‘ll have the opportunity to use digital spaces in new ways to present this work.

Okay. I like that. It’s like… not work. It’s like… fun. But then I’m not entirely new to e-learning or digital culture, but what I want to know is what others think. I need to know beyond my own concepts, definitions, and experiences. I need to know beyond what I know. I’m so over myself in that way. Bring on what others think and know. I need that. AND that’s why I need this MOOC.

Harry Houdini--all tied up.

Harry Houdini–all tied up.

I feel like Harry Houdini sometimes when I wander into that dangerous place where I think I know something. I feel like I could be all chained up, bound, and tied together, but I’d be able to work my out of that spot through a box submerged in stormy seas, because I really know how to do that in a given situation. But what if I get cocky? Don’t escape artists die who start to believe their own press? I don’t want that. Nobody wants that.

If I’m mad for the MOOC because it will expose me to thousands of ideas from thousands of people, or if I’m mad for the MOOC because it will being me closer to the ideas of a few other people, I’m okay with that. Either way. If I’m mad for the MOOC because it means I have some new way to move past the things that bind me, and give me new ways to escape my own chains, that’s a good thing. But could a MOOC drive me mad?

We’ve already seen that it’s overwhelming to get all connected, and the thing hasn’t even begun. Still it feels manageable by being connected to a few folks, like Houdini with only a few handcuffs on, and by being part of a group who has members willing to answer questions, set up the environment where we learn from each other, and generally act as decent and caring citizens of this new community.

One of the frustrations with MOOCS, Pappano writes in her NY Times article, is that there is so little contact with the instructor(s). Already our cohort has proven that invested individuals will jump in and “teach” as needed, share ideas, give advice, tell what’s what, create a “place” (or a “school”) where we can navigate our own learning experience. We already have blog groups actively writing and reading each others’ posts. Amazing.

If I weren’t totally into learning for the sake of making life exciting and grand and new and wonderful, a MOOC might make me stark-raving mad–because it could be intimidating. Or if I was expecting teacherly attention…I might be sadly disappointed, but the thing that makes me squarely on the side of “I’m mad for MOOCs” (so far) is the peer connections, the peer learning, the peer teaching, the peer guidance.

Sure, we’ll get lectures or directions or activities for the course, but my goals now include whatever I need to do for the class and being part of the peer network I’m smack in–that seems to already be one of the best parts of this adventure.

What will this mean for my goals as a professor/teacher/instructor of freshman through grad students and in professional programs? Not sure yet, but I can tell you this: a MOOC does not have to be a big ol’ open online course with 190,000 students in which students cannot learn because there is not attention for each from the teacher, it can be a course for me, something I do with a few friends, and a chance for all of us to change the way we think and work as humans in the midst of other humans doing the same thing.

Oh wait. We’ve already been e-learning and creating digital culture. Boo-yah.

Now. That said. I do have questions about the relevance for higher education credit, and especially for my field, writing students (actually for literature–I can see some possibilities for a MOOC). And the more I think about MOOCs and writing studies, the more I think there could be some dynamic introductory business handled through a MOOC–perhaps to the good of all who still buy into the lone-supergenius-writer-artist-starving-and-striving-and-drinking in an attic somewhere, suffering endlessly for that genius. Pshaw, I say. Let’s MOOC that myth to death.

In the meantime, I’ll be learning about what a MOOC is and can be from the instructors, by observing how they manage this course, but I’ll also learn from my fellow MOOCers. And the more I MOOC, the more I’ll understand. In the future, when I’m asked about MOOCs, I will be able to suggest how a MOOC might or might not help my school, and I’ll know something other than the definition of the acronym.

Image source: Wikipedia.

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Filed under All the Way Open, Epic Win, First Blog Boo-yah, High Five, MOOC Journeys, Writing with Heart

Writing, writing, writing, or not, then writing again

I have to take breaks from writing. I don’t like it, but it’s the way the year cycles around: at some points in the year, I just have more time to write than other times. The end of every semester is a harrowing experience (not just for me, for students, too), and I never get done at the end what I set out to do in the beginning. My best laid plans always go awry. After years of this rhythm, you’d think I’d have it mastered. Not. Ever the optimist at the beginning of the term; ever the realist at the end. Never a pessimist.

I begin to miss writing after a few days of doing little but crisis managing schedules, curriculum, grading, wrapping up the term doing paperwork that is neverending really (and by paperwork, I mean emails and actual “paper” work–forms and such that have to be filled out in order to finish or start an event or action–sometimes online but sometimes on paper). That’s not writing as I think of it; though, it is technically writing: I have to, most certainly and always, be aware of audience, purpose, genre, and content.

What I mean by missing writing is I miss writing here or other blogs. I miss thinking in this medium. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes with words appearing on the screen that describe my thinking, action I wish to take, ideas that percolate and then are ready to be alive/shared, even the revelation of my neuroses or Neurosis. Writing has become tangible to me through online writing in ways that aren’t tangible for the writing I do in physical notebooks or journals. I do a lot of that writing and have several notebooks I write in consistently. Some I fill in just a few months; some are filled over the course of a year or so; I usually never keep the topics consistent, though–always grabbing one for whatever, whenever. It’s always a surprise then when I go back to see what I wrote or was thinking at any particular time.

A few of my writing notebooks for notes, art, graphs, charts, and writing.

But I love writing in the notebooks as I can doodle, too, and draw ideas in ways that I can’t using just words. I rethink room arrangements, chart curriculum, envision graphics to support ideas. Keep up a dialog with a book or speaker. But here, online, there’s the accountability of the public that does not come with my clandestine journal work.

And I miss this. It’s part of who I’m becoming. Always becoming.

I don’t carry on an active blogging life in the sense that I write in blogs all the time or connect to other bloggers, and/or engage in blogs that are about my professional or personal interests. It’s not that kind of blog (as I’ve mentioned before); this is a blog where I work out mentally. This is more for me than anyone. My intellectual gym, sort of. I definitely don’t go to this writing gym as much as I should, but it’s still here for me to work out in when I have time. And I always feel better after a writing work out. Though, sometimes I have been sore for a few days post-writing (neck, back, fingers, right arm, mouse hand).

What I can’t help seeing in that metaphor–blogging is a mental gym–is the correlation between how much I write and how relaxed I am or how productive I feel in all aspects of my life when I’m writing regularly. It’s very like exercise–in fact, there must be some kind of endorphin rush that accompanies writing because it makes me feel good and strong when I do it, and I feel puny and weak when I don’t.

A quick Google search yielded a scholarly article on endorphins and exercise that suggests it is a fine thing (something my grandmother knew in the 1920s from working on a farm, BTW). A lousy picture of of the citation and abstract is below–I suggest you click on the link rather than strain your eyes.

Check out this article–it’s old but it might be right.

I could have done a more thorough search through a library database, but you get the idea. Is not writing a form of exercise? I have to stretch (intellectually) before I do it; I have to be active and engaged while doing it; I have to be determined to keep doing it; I have to cool down after. I’m a stronger writer after it’s all over. Are not endorphins part of this process, then?

For ages, we have called getting ready to write doing writing exercises. I’m sure there are studies on the brain and writing which actually do justice to this idea, but I’m not going there today. I just want to speculate and allow my links and thinking and alignments to freely associate as they will–just to stretch my mind a bit as I get ready for the next writing I have to do. There’s a lot of writing on my agenda this summer. I am looking forward to all of it: institutes, workshops, articles, chapters, working on old stuff, new stuff, bizarre stuff, fun stuff. I’m also looking forward to writing here.

I want to post something every week, though, historical precedence suggests putting expectations on my work here isn’t always realistic. I’m working on my teaching/admin/human memoir as much as I can–and want to make this blog a garden for that work, but I have other writing that must be completed before I teach again in the fall. I’m okay with that.

I have a big calendar and a plan.

It won’t be easy. It never is. But being prepared for the activity of writing is the key, isn’t it? Can’t cook unless you handle your mise en place. Can’t sail a boat unless you practice sailing. Can’t score a touchdown unless you play football. Can’t slay a dragon if you don’t pick up a sword and swing.

But I have to be careful not to over plan so that all I do is plan and prepare–that can be a bad thing. Have you read this incredible children’s book? It’s a cautionary tale on that particular error in writing process–over planning (or a tale of inspiration, if you really do need to slay a dragon).

The Knight Who Took All Day by James Mayhew

This book is one of my favorites of all time. Not only does it impart a wonderful literal message for children, but every single time I read, I am moved to:

1) Always keep my eyes open to wonder and danger.

2) Assume that I can do something if I decide to.

3) Live as if I can change the world with bravery and love.

I have often thought that the dragon in this book could BE writing to many (or the knight’s lack of focus). Writing is hard (and dangerous? or intimidating?) and so lots of people feel it’s a magic gift that only a few have been given. Not true–on any of those fronts.

Anyone can slay the dragon of writing if determined and by getting the right tools, stretching, being ready, picking up the sword, putting on the armor, practicing. It’s not a gift; it’s not luck; it’s not magic. It’s knowing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and how it needs to be done. (Or, to be rhetorically specific, these are three concepts important to writing–and speaking–and they never get old for me: ethos, logos, pathos. Aristotle continues to rock in the 21st century.)

Writing could end up being a friendly dragon, a powerful and unexpected knight from an unexpected place (I can’t spoil the ending of the book by giving too much away!), and we might all find our way to a happier ending because of writing.

I’m happier because I write. Yes. Yes, I am. Right now, this minute. This second. Happier.

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Filed under A Writing Teacher Writes, Magic and Writing, Web Writing, Writing with Heart

Traveling with freshman changes a mind

On my recent trip to Oklahoma City with students in Honors Composition II:

travel with freshman

perspective shifts just slightly

future is brighter

 

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The truth today, not the truth for tomorrow

I’ve recently had to change my schedule a few times based on the needs of others. I was greatly amused by a colleague who said this to me:

Did you see my email about the schedule change? Well, it’s the most recent email about the most recent change. I’m sure it will all change again. For today, it’s the truth.

I loved that. For that day, it was the truth. Tomorrow, everything may change again, and there will be a new truth. That’s okay. I changed my calendar, changed my email and pop-up reminders for the change on the calendar, and changed my thoughts about how to handle the schedule change, as one change has an impact on many things. No big.

Since I’m a fan of change (“fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man”–one of the Pattonisms guiding my life this spring term), I thought, bring it, bring on the changes, I can adapt to anything.

I remember the exact moment when I thought: I can endure anything; I will survive no matter what. Throw the worst at me, and I can take it for at least one day. And if I can take it for one day, then I can take it for one more day. And one more day after that. I will not be defeated except by beheading.

My moment of epiphany was a long time ago actually, and might explain something about who I am now. I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962) (the story of one day in the life of a man imprisoned for over 3,600 days total). I was required to read it for a 20th century European literature class (in translation, of course). I loved that class and my 19th century European literature class, too–these gave me such a fine context for reading what became a focus for a good part of my life: British literature, and then publishing and writing studies. Oddly enough, I think, it was just around 25 years after the original publication that I read the book–it felt real and fresh to me actually. We were still in the midst of the Cold War, a post-WWII era ushered in by Stalin, dominated by Stalinist ideas. The Berlin Wall had not fallen yet. My life was partially defined by the Cold War–what person living through the end of the 20th century wasn’t defined by that? For instance:

  1. I am a child of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I watched these cartoons as a child, owned the VHS, now own the DVDs.
  2. My father was a member of a Civil Defense League meant to stop the Communist threat right on the shores of California before reaching the American heartland. (How they would do that, I’m not sure, but we lived in LA and he owned a 10 gauge side-by-side barrel shotgun. Honestly, it would have scared away a few folks perhaps.)
  3. I read a lot of spy fiction with my mother throughout my youth–good spies were American and British; bad spies were Russian (and/or East German).

I was keenly aware of the Eastern Commie Hordes who I was told might storm the shores of my state (so close to China and Russia) to take me and my fragile life any moment to be reprogrammed in the socialistic evils in a Gulag or on re-education farm. The Solzhenitsyn book just reinforced the horror of that kind of regime and the concept that I was somehow in peril because of Stalin and his legacy (I still say things might have been different had Trotsky not been exiled and then gotten an axe in the head–I won’t even talk about Mao here).

Solzhenitsyn after his release from the Gulag in 1953.

I knew something of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, as a protester, of his imprisonments prior to being assigned this book, so found his story credible. I also understood that the book was about just one day in the life of an ordinary prisoner, a regular Joe-six-pack dude, Ivan Denisovich Shukov. And what I learned from that book is that survival is about daily survival–live through a day, greet the next day breathing and putting one foot in front of the other, again, until another day can be gotten through. I don’t remember details now at all, just that it was cold, dark, scary, vicious, full of hunger, thirst, fear. All that year I was in school, I worried about a 1,000 things that I thought were so very important. But–epiphany!–Shukov got through worse than anything I experienced, and all in one day and ended that day with something like hope of kindness. I can survive one day of disappointment, of heartache, of loss, of emotional misery. My worries are petty worries about a chipped nail or a bad hair cut, about how I miss someone, not about whether I will die of starvation or hypothermia or a beating. I also remember thinking, no way I’m ever in a situation that is worse than a Russian Gulag. That shut up my complaining pretty quickly, at least for that year.

I still think it’s important to consider myself in relief to others less fortunate. I have an easier time of it than a roofer. Smelling tar makes me nauseous. I do not carry buckets on my head 10 miles to get clean water for my family. I am not beaten or stoned for saying the right thing at the wrong time. I have never wanted for food unless I was too lazy to go out and get it. I have never been afraid of being torn from my home in the middle of the night by police-state-sanctioned thugs to be held against my will in perpetuity without trial (despite what my 1950s-influenced relatives might have believed about the Red Scare). I’ve never been in a war-torn area. I’ve never even, really, been threatened by anyone.

The truth of my life is all around me is fairly tame, quiet, and supportive, and that truth is generally unchanging. I could be attacked by a herd of mad cows tomorrow and die in a freak stampede accident, but still that’s not a daily threat. I am fully aware of my relative safety and fully aware of how and why I have that safety and privilege. Sadly, I take it for granted too often.

My truth is that I am truly safe… always, even during change. It’s good to remember this when my heart is breaking a little or the grocery store is out of my favorite spinach/artichoke dip and I have to find something else among the 25,000 items in the store I want to eat, that I can afford to eat (which would be anything, I suspect), that I can buy nearly whatever I want without thinking twice about it (but I WANTED the spinach/artichoke dip).

When I am inconvenienced or when I am frustrated that I can’t get my wi-fi to work, I only need remember Shukov, Solzhenitsyn (and so many others), and all they symbolize, then and now, of the incarcerated without cause, the beaten without reason, the killed without meaning, the silenced without hope for freedom of speech, and I can thankfully hush my whining mouth, change my small plans, and live another day in utter peace. If Shukov could find that his one awful day could almost be happy, that there could/can be meaning despite every attempt by oppressors to make life devoid of meaning, then, really what could we get through if we were determined to survive or had reason to live?

I’m not demeaning the life I live by poking a bit of fun at my chipped nail dramas in contrast to those who have suffered greatly–the life I lead is predicated on the freedoms I’m allowed and for which I’m profoundly grateful–I know that and celebrate it. What I mean is that I know how good I have it.

In direct and personal contrast, I knew a man who was part of the Bataan Death March and his health (physical and mental) was changed forever after… he survived that and was imprisoned for nearly the rest of the war–how long, I don’t remember. He was lucky, though, because he was a doctor and was allowed to semi-care for other prisoners. He was haunted and hampered all the rest of his life by that experience, though. I knew both him and his wife, and we had dinner a few times–sometimes listening to music after dinner, moving the furniture around, and dancing to old records. They had a property care taker who I’d dance with, and then we’d switch partners. (Such an odd moment of my life to remember now that I think about it.) The doctor and his wife were both very aged when I knew them (I took care of their dogs sometimes when they traveled–all named after fellow prisoners of war). The doctor didn’t talk about his ordeal much, but once he did, and I asked him how he managed to survive when so many others didn’t. He said because he needed to–the other prisoners of war needed him to live. So he did.

When I think about surviving for another day, I think of him, I think of Shukov, and Solzhenitsyn, and I want to believe I could do that–get through one day, no matter what, and another day, if I needed to survive. At the least, I have learned from them that survival can happen, in the worst of circumstances, and that there are real and good reasons to fight for life.

Small changes that rearrange my time? These mean nothing to me. It’s just part of the truth for that one day. And on any one day, I’m grateful for everything and embrace whatever the truth is for that day.

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Filed under Old Stories and New Thinking, Survival and Success, The Truth or Not, Writing with Heart

Can one breakfast biscuit sandwich change my life?

I have lived in the Deep South for nearly four years. I just had my first Hardee’s sausage and egg biscuit last week thanks to a dear friend’s insistence that I try this.

He was right, and I was due. I must have needed another thing in my life to hanker after because, apparently, I don’t have enough to keep me busy and/or intrigued.

My first impression of the biscuit: buttery, hot, fluffy, crumbly, rich, intense, salty, sweet. The sausage and egg: spicy sausage and smooth egg. Both perfectly done and perfectly perched on the perfect biscuit. It was so hot. And I don’t just mean the temperature. It was Paris Hilton hot.

Why I haven’t been back every morning is beyond me, because it was tasty and satisfying, and frankly, I often don’t eat breakfast because I’m flying out of the house and don’t worry about eating until much later in the day (and then I’m cranky about eating), but I should eat breakfast. Breaking a fast is important. It’s my favorite meal of the day. Bread with meat and eggs. Lovely.

Historically, the bread and meat combo so familiar to us today is attributed to the desire of the Earl of Sandwich (in the mid-18th century) to eat without interruption during a gaming marathon. His cook gave him meat between two slices of bread that allowed him to eat and yet keep up with the game. This may be where we get the word sandwich (via the Earl or his cook–whatever), but such a combo has not been uncommon around the world for ages. Think of all the cultures that use some kind of bread product in conjunction with meat: tortilla, pita, naan… (or without meat, just as you please), and there are so many more than these simple examples. Because I’m a bit focused on British culture, occasionally, I know the British history of the sandwich better than most bread concoctions in other cultures. Besides. Who doesn’t love tea and tea sandwiches–delicate little savories served at some tea times?

The Empress (photo by Bobak Ha'Eri, 2009)

I like tea. I like sandwiches (cucumber sandwiches, even). I have always loved tea time. I even love having a cup of tea at 4 or 5 pm any day, and having a tea meal or desserts: bonus. I suppose I should mention that Victorians have claimed tea time to have been an invention of that period. (Just like Texans claim they invented everything from margaritas to republicanism.)

I partook of my first tea many years ago while staying at The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia. I am still enchanted by the hotel and the island, and though The Empress is an Edwardian structure, I know they mean Queen Victoria when they talk about the Empress (as you are no doubt aware, she was crowned Empress of India in 1876). It’s always about Victoria, isn’t it? I have wanted to return to that island, just to sit and sip tea and wander around like a Victorian colonist, I mean, tourist… well, like an Edwardian tourist, at least.

When I showed up for tea at The Empress, I was wearing beat to shreds Levi 501 button-fly blue jeans with a seam-to-seam hole just below the left back pocket, a white billowy artist’s shirt over a bright yellow halter top which showed my midriff… and flip flops. I was not allowed in. I was turned away, haughtily, I might add, and was not seated. Could not be seated. I was an affront to the whole thing. High tea, indeed, but not in that get-up.

The Empress at night (photo by PDTillman, 2009)

So I walked the 14,238 miles of corridors back to my room to change into suitable tea gear: a skirt, strappy sandals, and a sweater set. Holy Mother of Pearl–I would have worn a Beefeater’s uniform to get into tea at The Empress. It was magnificent. After my mother reminded me of how to properly drink tea, I was fine and comported myself as any proper young hippie would who was stuffed into proper tea clothes in a proper tea-drinking/tea-eating situation. I was extremely proper. All that lasted about two hours. I may not have been too proper since then, but I did have my big moment at least that once.

I have loved the little sandwich ever since then.

I haven’t loved breakfast sandwiches, though, and very particularly did not like biscuit sandwiches. Biscuits are often too heavy, too bland, too doughy. Sometimes I’ve encountered biscuits that were akin to river rocks and just as useful to a meal. Not the biscuit I ate from Hardee’s. Yum. It was as fun to experience, in its own way, as tea sandwiches at The Empress… a thing of its culture and a beautiful thing it is.

If this is what the Southern biscuit is all about, then I’m all over it. In fact, our home town minor league baseball team is called The Biscuits. I have a whole new respect for this choice of name. (Sadly, the mascot is some kind of bright red weird elephant-like creature–I think it should have been someone in a baseball uniform with a gravy boat head. They did, however, get the logo right, it’s a biscuit head with a tongue made of a butter pat.) I’m a fan now. I think I need to own a Biscuits t-shirt and eat a lot more biscuits (only from Hardee’s–I have loyalty for my foodstuffs).

Since I have been introduced to a new sandwich, I vow to honor sandwiches of all kinds on November 3, National Sandwich Day, in honor of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (b. 3 Nov 1718, d. 30 April 1792). This year, 3 November falls on a Thursday, the day of week I teach a writing pedagogy class. I think I might have to bring sandwiches and ask students to write about the best sandwich they ever ate, ever (not that I would expect they’d say mine, but my sandwiches are spectacular–I will most certainly write about the first time I included apples in a ham sandwich transporting my friends to sandwich nirvana on one famous and wonderful day in Boise, Idaho in the late 1980s).

I have several favorites I’m considering:

  • Pita with brie, roasted red peppers, with a startling, fresh lemon/garlic dressing
  • Marble rye with ham, Wensleydale, slices of Granny Smith apples, stone ground mustard for brightness
  • Sourdough with roast beef, tomato/banana pepper/olive salsa, thinly sliced red onions, provolone, and a piquant red wine vinegar dressing
  • Crunchy French bread rolls with roasted chicken salad (dried apricots, salty/smoky almonds, green onions, peas, bacon, mayo, refreshing lime zest)
  • Italian bread loaded with thin slices of pepperoni lightly sprinkled with oregano, olive oil, champagne vinegar, salt/pepper, and topped with shredded lettuce

Wouldn’t you love to attend a class where the professor brought those things? Any of those? (Does this count as catering to students?) Just writing about these makes me hungry. I really miss making food. I need to do it again soon. (I think I might write about the watermelon-tomato soup I made a few months ago, especially since the last couple of days have been so warm. It feels like summer soup weather still.)

I ask in the title of this post if one breakfast biscuit sandwich can change my life. The answer is no: but many breakfast biscuit sandwiches could change my life. Many sandwiches have changed my life (see the above list for a start). I love making sandwiches and often don’t because I got lost in another life (sort of like being lost in Austen, or lost in a good novel, or lost in the woods without a bread crumb trail–literally). However, my life in the last 14 months has been dedicated to conjuring up a new way of thinking about work and life and food and friends and writing and… well, thinking.

On 3 November, I will remember all the momentous sandwiches of my life and offer a quiet, dignified sandwichy homage to the 4th Earl in my class for my students, and we’ll talk about basic writing and eat sandwiches and write about sandwiches.

We can do that because writing is about everything, and that’s something that needs to be at the core of every basic writing class. If that’s something I can teach with sandwiches, then I win.

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Filed under Sandwiches, Writing and Gambling, Writing with Heart

How I really write

I’ve been working as a writing consultant with a lot of successful adults. These are folks who are in the very tip top tier of their professions and manage huge numbers of others. They are all the way grownup and so am I.

Interesting that I am finding things out about myself, though, as a teacher while working with these adults. Here’s what I mean:

I share ideas and strategies that I use as a professional writer because they want and need me to do so–it’s my job. I explain ways I have used to do extensive research, talk about brainstorming for developing an idea, name apps that I use for productivity, discuss format and documentation techniques, share proofreading strategies, suggest ways of dealing efficiently with on-demand writing, recall approaches for undertaking other tasks, and on and on. I refer to books, to web-sites, and more. And they take notes, or I send URLs to them. And we talk a lot.

Many of the things we talk about and the questions we ask each other in consultation sessions seem sophisticated to me; I think this is true because it really is sophisticated chat. I’m sharing professional writing knowledge with professionals who are writing. Some haven’t written extensive prose for years (many have said they are ten years out of grad school); some have never loved writing; some have forgotten how to get started; some have simply wanted to talk through ideas–and yet, these writers are grad students who are well beyond the regular grad student in professional experience and, typically, in actual age. However, many of their issues about wrestling with writing process or production are not dissimilar to any writer in any program at any age.

The major difference is that these professionals have authentic audiences and usually clear purposes for their writing. What a difference this makes. It might be the case that I, as a writing consultant, might need to tease out the exact specifics of this information as we talk through ideas, but the fact is that real writing is really a lot easier to conceptualize: what do you want the reader to know or do as a result of your text? Badda-bing-badda-boom.

Another side effect, or bonus, is that I realized fairly shortly after undertaking this endeavor that my teaching for freshman has been materially affected by this other experience. I am far more engaged with my professional writing in front of freshman than I have been before–much more willing to share who I am as a writer. I usually try not to intimidate freshman by writing well in front of them (I always write with them to some extent), but my writing always starts out as coal and grows into a bigger pile of coal until I wrestle into some form or other and rearrange the atoms with heat and pressure to turn it into diamonds. I like to write with students but it’s been the case that I’ve dashed things off to get writing handled, rather than really worked the craft of it all. And I haven’t always talked about what I’ve done in detail–as a writer.

That’s changing. I still write seemingly frivolous things to have fun with the freshman (or other undergrad students), but I’m much more serious now about explaining how I work, how writing BEGINS as opposed to how it ENDS. Explaining to professionals a process that is expressivism in the beginning and pragmatism at the end–well, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. But the thing that I can’t get away from is that writing has to mean something to the writer. Or why bother? It’s just a meaningless exercise that one can master but never has heart. I got the five-paragraph essay down. I could write one in about twenty minutes. But who would care? What would the purpose be? (I could use it to pass an American history in-class on-demand exam, but I just get the grade and move on–I wouldn’t be a better writer because of it… necessarily.)

I want to work with writers who have heart, like in baseball musicals (because that’s so real); you gotta have heart. And what I’m finding is that the all-the-way-grown-up writers, and my consultations with them, have reminded me that my freshman need me to be just who I am–not a teacher only, but a model of someone who writes and has worked at it a long time and who has heart even when things look grim. Writing is gut-wrenching work and all my students need to know it.

My freshman students, especially, need to see that I can have no audience and only write for me, that I can write for one person alone, that I can write for a whole class of students, that I can write for a specific audience that I choose, or who chooses me: faculty, administrators, sailors, baseball fans, Victorianists, astronauts, and/or chefs.

How I really write is with heart. My writing matters to me–it has to, or I can’t get motivated to do it. In truth, I tend to put off the writing projects that don’t matter so much to me: technical reports, end-of-term/year reports, journal articles. No matter who the audience is and whether they are real or not, or whether the words I use are meant to be fiction or nonfiction–I gotta have heart. Whatever I might find is my purpose, no matter who I try to be as a writer… I see the heart thing matters. Heart really matters when I work with another writer. That’s intimate and colossal and harder still than working alone. I need to bring a big heart to that sort of endeavor–and so do my students. They need to see what that’s like. Perhaps I need to write WITH them, truly collaborate, not just assign group work, projects.

All the writers I work with need to know this one thing about how I really write. With heart.

"You Gotta Have Heart" from *Damn Yankees* film (1958)

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Filed under Surprising Information, Writing and Identity, Writing with Heart