Saturday, April 29, 2006

Confession: I do not like summer vacation.

Or rather, I do not like summer vacations of sleeping in, traveling, hanging at the beach, doing whatever I please whenever I please. I never have. Before I became a teacher, I seemed to have known this. My favorite summers have been the ones when I have voluntarily thrown myself into intensive, energetic, highly structured, and sleep-depriving programs that in turn give me something of great physical, relational, or intellectual worth in the exchange. As soon as I was old enough to make my own plans, I made big plans for summer vacations.

For five summers in high school and college, I worked at summer camp. It is still one of my best memories, even though the point is to run the campers ragged with so much activity that each one is guaranteed a good time and so that they are too tired to try any nonsense in the middle of the night. The campers were elated but exhausted by the end of seven days, and so was I, but a brand new group of kids came four hours after the old ones fell into their cars to be taken home. It shocks me now that at such a young age, I was in charge of groups of children who were sometimes too young to tie their own shoes. Summer camp is where I became a morning writer. I needed some time to myself, away from the kids and the other staff members, and early mornings were the only chance to get away, leave the campers in bed unattended (my current teacher brain is shreiking at me right now), and sit down with my words. Summer camp is one of the most formative experiences of my life, and when June rolls around each year, I crave it. I smell pine trees and chlorine and Tater Tots just off the images that float into my head. It was intensely structured with almost no down time, and I kept going back for more.

Going to massage school was a summer thing, something entertaining to do between my bachelor's and master's programs. Some people may have chosen a summer abroad, but having grown up somewhere else, I wanted a different something all consuming, something that would fill my brain and be engaging, something that would bring out another part of myself. So massage school. A live-in, six day a week, mentally challenging and physically taxing intensive training program. I loved it. I didn't feel the need to have a break from studying. I just wanted to study something different.

Since becoming a teacher, I have taken it easy in the summer. There was the summer we moved and were legitimately busy painting and unpacking, but otherwise, July and August wander slowly around, seeing a Dodger game here, going to the Shakespeare festival there, attending a three-day conference, and then working on their tans at the beach. I always think about giving them structure, waking at a certain time each morning to write, going to the gym at the same time, then having certain days for the library, days for cards with friends, and other days for trips to Santa Anything (Barbara, Monica, Ynez). There are two problems with that: 1) Compare any combination of those activities with the intense structure of my summers past, and they seem despicably lazy in comparison, and 2) I am married to someone who is less structured than I am, but whose company I still want in the summer.

This summer, I am not going to be hanging out with July and August doing whatever we want. And I cannot emphasize enough how good this is. The summer writing program I interviewed for during spring break sent a letter of acceptance this week, and now I do not have to check myself into a behavioral medicine hospital for suicidal thoughts this summer. Because another summer of doing what I want was going to take me over the edge. This program is five weeks of meeting with other educators to write, talk about writing, and explore ways to be better writers and empower our students to be better writers. d is going, too, so we can carpool, stop at the beach on the way home each day, and still see our friends, hit the gym, play in Santa Barbara after the meetings, and have just enough weeks completely off to do whatever we want without feeling like life has no meaning anymore. I am excited, and very grateful. Ha ha! Summer plans again!

Friday, April 21, 2006


Don't read this and then go looking through my blog with a red pen, but I feel strongly about economy and precision of language. While hyperbole doesn't bother me at all, I'm not thrilled with the overuse of qualifiers. And when an adjective is used, I would prefer for it to be accurate, or fresh, or at least not cloyingly sentimental. I have students who believe strongly that more is more, that there is an infinite supply of exclamation points, that there can never be too many fonts on a page, that quotation marks are useful to add emphasis, that i's should be dotted with circles as big as lollipops, and that adjectives are best when they conjure up saccharine cartoon characters. They would use words like tragedy and miracle loosely and feel no shame in doing so. They will either grow out of this in time or, I now have reason to suspect, they will become real estate agents.

Driving through the neighborhood yesterday, I passed a house for sale. On top of the wooden arm holding the sign with the offending agent's name and number is a placard that reads, "Miracle Home". Because I try hard to be a nice person, and because I have such high hopes for my students' futures, hopes that they will not fill their homes with Precious Moments and Thomas Kinkade, that they will not misuse adjectives so wantonly, I have come to the conclusion that this must really be a miracle home.

Here is my list of guesses for the most likely places you can see an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe inside the house down the street:
1. The glass in the front window throws her unmistakable reflection on the opposite wall in the midafternoon.
2. The bark on the lemon tree out back, if you tilt your head just so and focus on a certain four inch section, looks like the Virgen.
3. One night, years ago, they were barbecuing under the patio. The smoke rose into the lattice all night, and the next day, her face was looking down. They moved the grill so as not to disturb the image, and it has remained there ever since, through storms and termites and the one maid service who didn't know and tried to sweep down some cobwebs once. It's still there.
4. The branches in the avocado tree grew in abnormal shapes, twisting out, then turning back in, and the branches themselves form the outlines of her face. More birds nest in that tree than in any other in the yard.
5. The kitchen has marble countertops. In the swirls of grey and gold, there is an image of the Virgen, and not just her face over by the paper towel dispenser , but the drape of her gown flowing down the counter, ending where the toaster is.
6. In the travertine floor going down the hallway, if the dimmer switches are on just right, she is looking up with a smile on her face.
7. The lime deposits on the fountain in the side yard have grown more and more distinct through the years. There is no chance of mistaking what you see. It is the Virgen's face.
8. During el niño in 1991, the rain seeped into a closet upstairs. It didn't wet the contents, but it left a watermark on the ceiling, a mark in the shape of the Virgen holding a baby in her arms. The family's oldest daughter, home from graduate school in Chicago, was staying in that room during the storm. When her first child was born a year later, everyone was amazed when the baby could pound out tunes on the piano without any lessons. A prodigy, they said.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Four Days

I dreamed about school last night. Which is a sure sign that my subconscious knows vacation is nearly over.

Today, I interviewed for a summer writing workshop for teachers. If all goes as I hope, that is how I will spend half of my summer.

I went into my classroom this morning in preparation for the interview to grab some student samples of approaches that I use and could demonstrate for other teachers. It was eerie to be at school without the usual buzz of life there. At the end of the summer when I go to put the room together, there is an energy and there are a few early people wandering around and popping in to ask about the summer and comment on the expanses of black butcher paper that I use to cover the walls. But today, there were only phantoms. I glanced out the door—my habit— expecting to see familiar figures walking across the outdoor stage toward the office, or rounding the corner into my door. It was quiet. Still. Fences were closed and locked. Such a stark contrast to the noise and pulse there will be Monday morning. I am still on vacation, which means there are still s'mores to be eaten over outdoor fires, Nertz games to play, and an ocean to commune with, but the prospect of school resuming is not a bad thing. There are kids to check on, and a precious few more weeks to spend with them before graduation.

Now, another poem because it is April. Each time I read it, I see something new.

Now I Understand
Linda Gregg
Something was pouring out. Filling the field
and making it vacant. A wind blowing them
sideways as they moved forward. The crying
as before. Suddenly I understood why they left
the empty bowls on the table, in the empty hut
overlooking the sea. And knew the meaning
of the heron breaking branches, spreading
his wings in order to rise up out of the dark
woods into the night sky. I understood about
the lovers and the river in January.
Heard the crying out as a battlement,
of greatness, and then the dying began.
The height of passion. Saw the breaking
of the moon and the shattering of the sun.
Believed in the miracle because of the half heard
and the other half seen. How they ranged
and how they fed. Let loose their cries.
One could call it the agony in the garden,
or the paradise, depending on whether
the joy was at the beginning, or after.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Daring Act of Belief

Some prose from High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver:

" 'So what?' life asked, and went on whirling recklessly around me. . . . Be still, and the world is bound to turn herself inside out to entertain you. Everywhere you look, joyful noise is clanging to drown out quiet desperation. The choice is, draw the blinds and shut it out, or believe. What to believe in, exactly, may never turn out to be half as important as the daring act of belief. A willingness to participate in sunlight, and the color red. An agreement to enter into a conspiracy with life on behalf of both frog and snake, the predator and the prey, in order to come away changed."

Friday, April 14, 2006

It is Not a Burn

Yesterday was the second luscious beach day in a row. Southern Californians usually don't have to savor them quite this much, but the weather is a little strange recently—global warming and melting polar ice caps and what not. So I now have the perfect tourist tan: my legs are the exact shade as my favorite Matt Hotch toenail polish, and in two days they will be the perfect shade of bronze, and then a week after that, they will peel, all segmented and reptilian.

As if vacation couldn't get any more perfect, I read my first book of the break last night, between about 10pm and 2am. I hate reading books that way, in one sitting, but when I get sucked in I cannot stop—I have reserves of will power in every other area of my life, but I cannot stop a book. It was The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. There are some particularly well crafted sentences and images, and if I had read the book properly, with pencil in hand, I could now share some with you, but it didn't quite happen that way. Second time through, perhaps. I like Sue Monk Kidd in part because I identify with her journey. She was a Christian writer for a long time; I remember her name from the magazines my mom allowed me to read as a child. Then she had an awakening and began a transformation in her system of beliefs. I read her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, and found it very thought provoking.

The poem for today is excerpted in the beginning of The Mermaid Chair :

Love Sonnet XVII
Pablo Neruda (translated by Mark Eisner)

I don't love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain dark things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don't know any other way to love,
except in this way in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores,
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo
el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra.

Te amo sin saber como, ni cuándo, ni de donde,
te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo:
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,
sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres,
tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Perfect Day

1. I woke up with Ivy purring right next to me.
2. d made the best oatmeal that I've ever tasted.
3. The gym wasn't as packed as it looked from the parking lot.
4. Partly cloudy ended up being blue sky, sunshine, and warm air.
5. Any day that involves Taco Bell is inherently superior to any day without.
6. The surf shop had extraordinarily well-stocked clearance racks.
7. The Channel Islands have never been as clearly visible as they were today.
8. A junior sized football.
9. d is my best friend, my compass, my sanctuary.
10. The Amazing Race, Lost, and a new episode of Mind of Mencia all in one night, and no school tomorrow for which to go to bed early.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Spring Vacation

So far,
1. I have slept much. Since I don't work so much at school right now, having a competent and eager student teacher like Frank to take over most of the actual teaching, I didn't really think I was so tired. Turns out that teaching is more like two full time jobs, the actual teaching, and then all the other stuff: grading, planning, helping other people with projects, organizing and archiving, writing letters of recommendation, keeping track of kids’ lives, etc.
2. Game group came over to celebrate a birthday and play Nertz, and I haven’t seen anyone since there was some major drama at d’s school regarding sexual harassment and administration and half of the people in game group being victimized, so it was good to reconnect and see that everyone is pulling through ok.
3. I lost $8 at poker, even with Josh coaching me. My instincts are improving, and I had the second best hand several times. However, the poker gods conspired to deal me five different configurations of 6 and 3; that’s just a sign that luck is not on one’s side.
4. It is spring and I should be at the beach soaking up sun, but it is rainy and I have a new cold—too many late nights of cards. . . I will steam at the gym later.
5. I bought an 8 week subscription to the Star, not because I want to stay better informed, need to recycle more stuff, or can’t find news online, but because two junior high boys came to my door during poker and gave me that look, the one I’m a sucker for at school, the look that says, “Would it cause you internal bleeding to help me out?” So yeah. I’m on vacation, and I can’t escape kids. And doing things for kids. And telling kids what to do (“Don’t go inside other people’s houses. Not every house is filled with teachers. . .”).
6. Taxes are totally done, turned in, gone. Out of my hands. Now I can sit back and wait for direct deposit.

It’s still April. Read some more poetry!

Sonnet 98
William Shakespeare

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Another Reason I Like Teaching Jr. High

Students can just enjoy stories and poetry for the sake of enjoyment, and they have not yet become this poem by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins:

Introduction to Poetry
Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In Honor of My Insomnia

I woke up at a different time, 2:00ish instead of 1:00ish, very early Monday morning, and felt that perhaps my insomnia was becoming cured because I had managed an additional hour of sleep. Then I remembered that the time changed. I'm still waking up at the same exact hour as before!

While I do not hear barking dogs at night, I love how this poem symbolizes my thoughts that will not let me sleep during my nightly window of insomnia.

Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun In The House
Billy Collins

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

Monday, April 03, 2006

This is Just to Say

This is one of the most tender poems about marriage that I have read:

This is Just to Say
William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Saturday, April 01, 2006

It's April

That's right, April is National Poetry Month. Take a trip over to and feast your mind.

Here's one to get you started:
How To Eat a Poem
Eve Merriam

Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.
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