Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Warning: Hard Hat Area

I put vinyl windows in the garage today. All three windows cost over 400 dollars. I bought them at Lowe's. I don't know where else to get stuff like this. All three were special order sliders with faux glazing strips (only because those I took out were real glass panels... and about 50 years old). I'm planning on vinyl siding the house and the garage this summer, and I see the garage as the most logical place to start. Maybe I've mentioned that my grandfather built the place. Not "had it built." He built it, though I'm unsure if he did EVERYTHING himself. I'm pretty sure he called in someone to plaster the walls, and for specialty work like the cove base floor in the kitchen (now vinyl tile). Apparently my grandfather was a bad ass. He passed away in my early twenties. He was a boxer and a police officer and I have black and white pictures of him wearing a singlet. He was a very strong man, apparently, and renovating the house has, over the years, made me feel strong by virtue of the fact that I'm keeping something he started with his own sweat alive with my own sweat. It's probably a very complicated psychological thing, but I like to try and keep it simple. Work on house = good feelings. Letting house devolve into crap = bad feelings. I'm doing my best.

I've done my homework on the vinyl siding. I'm going to try and keep j-channel to a minimum. I'm using something else called window and door casing, which is 2.5" deep instead of just 1" with the j-channel. I'm spending the extra money to use a simulated hand-split shake vinyl on the peak on the house, and on the garage. Carter prices this stuff by the half square ($156), and even by the half it costs more than a whole square of 4.5 Dutchlap ($61.49). Since I'm going over redwood siding, I'll have to fur the whole thing out with strips- I'm going every 16" on center and running them with a framing nailer. This is the plan as it stands. I'll keep you updated.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

You know how it is (reprieve)

Sometime it's trying to speak hey joe and picking notes on country roads. Your baby doesn't let it be and I come to find out there's something more between you and me. Say it ain't so... Stab your blood into me and then / I know your eyes in the morning sun / I feel you touch me in the pouring rain / and the moment that you wander far from me / I wanna feel you in my arms again / And you come to me on a summer breeze / keep me warm in your love then you softly leave me / and it's me you need to show / how deep is your love / How deep is your love? / I really mean to learn / 'Cause we're living in a world of fools / breaking us down when they all should let us be / There's one thing to know about this town / It's 500 miles underground / and that's all right

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Readers in their youth... the short story, continued

Or... why not just teach whatever the heck I feel like? I think I've been feeling a lot of anxiety at the prospect of teaching only literature classes next year. There are rumors that my school is clamping down on electives. Apparently they're too small (student numbers) and too much of a scheduling hassle. I, obviously, think this would be horrible for teachers as well as students, but with public schools, sometimes it's about the kids, and sometimes it's about the money.

In the past I've had the freedom to do a lot. In fiction writing alone I've used the collections Werewolves in their Youth and Nine Stories as well as anthologies like You've Got to Read This (thanks Bob Pope), and The Oxford Anthology of American Short Stories. Some of the best discussions we ever had came from reading Werewolves in their Youth. Why? We read some of the bad Amazon book reviews, such as:

" I just read one of the stories from this book because my visiting cousin (16 years old) has it assigned for classwork. She said it was "the dumbest thing" she had ever read. Thinking she migh be missing something, I read the story myself. She is correct. This is the type of verbal diarrhea that causes young people to dislike literature. What a sad commentary on our culture that this is considered worthy of study in any context." -Erika Kendra

Isn't that hilarious! Here's another:

"Chabon is so praised, I try to find quality in his work, but it's pretentious writing, that tries so hard to be literary, and nothing in the stories or the words themselves pulls you toward the next page. I started reading a short story in this collection, and had to look up two words within the first two paragraphs. It made me feel stupid. But then I realized that I just finished reading WAR AND PEACE the week before, and had not had to look up a single word when reading THAT (the greatest novel ever written). Chabon should take a lesson from Tolstoy and try to write more naturally, and stop trying to be such an academic fop." - A Customer

The idea that looking words up makes someone feel stupid got my students laughing and stirred up. Then we debated. Half of the room took the opinions of these readers, that Chabon is spewing verbal diarrhea is an academic fop, yadda yadda yadda, while the other half tried to defend the merit of his writing. This was after we read "Spikes," which is a really good story in my opinion.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Again... the short story

So Chekhov is good. He has to be, because Cheever was the Chekhov of the suburbs, and Carver was the Chekhov of... desperation. Then there's Gogol: your character should want something even if it's only a glass of water. I'll just teach "The Overcoat" and call it a day. You've got character study, conflict, social satire, magical realism... And Tolstoy! Who needs Aesop when you've got him? Parable ahoy. So now I'm never leaving Russia.

But what about Joyce? Oh buddy. You've got to have Joyce. Who wouldn't want to read a guy with an eye patch? And those epiphanies... where would we be without them? So I could theoretically teach Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Joyce and...hmmm... Cheever or Carver. I might have to go with Cheever. Sorry. He's got a better sense of humor. No eye patch, but he used to try and get journalists drunk so they couldn't interview him. And he wrote "The Death of Justina." And "Goodbye My Brother."

Then what? I'm starting to feel like some literary gasbag imagining a room with these writers' heads hanging on plaques. Of course everyone would be smoking giant cigars and talking about Hemingway's iceberg theory. Uh-oh. What about Hemingway? He's pretty good. No, nothing pretty. He's damn good.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Short Story...continued

I really don't admire Maupassant, Saki, or O'Henry... it's the "twist ending" kind of thing, I guess. I prefer Roald Dahl's gruesome shorts. Stories like "Skin," "Lamb to Slaughter," "William the Conqueror," and even "Man from the South" are a lot of fun to read, probably a lot of fun to teach, but here we are again: is my job to teach what I like, or what is worthy, in this case, "genre-defining." Up until now I've been able to talk myself into teaching what is notable, but how many kids have already read "The Gift of the Magi," or "The Necklace" in seventh grade? Maybe I'd be doing them a disservice by making them read it again. Maybe I should skip this type of ironic-ending story altogether?

Turgenev? Is he worth considering? When I think of Sketches from a Hunter's Album, I think of landscape pieces. If Chekhov is "The King" of the short story, then Turgenev is Ricky Nelson. Why bother trudging through Tugenev's landscapes when Chekhov's are more vibrant?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Examining the Short Story (Part One)

I know this task is folly, doomed to fail, and probably a waste of time... so why do I keep coming back to it?

As a way to put off taking down posters and organizing files, I started a list on the board regarding the short story. With the help of some folks I work with, we were trying to create a timeline if (hypothetically) one were going to teach a survey course of the short story, where to start? Where to end? What are the definitive pieces, and/or writers? Is there such a thing?

I thought the best place to start would be an exploration of Fables, Parables and Allegory, which include Fairy Tales, Oral Traditions, Mythology, and possibly even scripture, though some might object. These stories seem to be didactic in some way and usually contain morals. The problem is, there are so many different types! Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Panchatantra, Aesop, The Decameron, The 1,001 Nights, The Canterbury Tales, Mahabharata, Buddhist Scriptures, much of the Old Testament, Ovid, Norse Myths... Mother Goose?

Then there are Legends and Tall Tales to contend with. There's King Arthur, obviously, but just in America alone there are tons of tall tales, like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Brer Rabbit, Bigfoot Wallace. I haven't even investigated tall tales in other cultures.

There's a giant heap of stuff to climb over, or wade through. I like a lot of it. If it were up to me, and I suppose it is because I'm the one writing this post, I'd start with a few Aesop's fables. Something like "The Fox and the Grapes." Why? Students have been conditioned how to read this kind of story. Since they were wee tykes (probably) they've been asked to identify "the moral of the story." A lot of the selections in middle school textbooks offer some kind of message, or moral and students come to regard the story as Conrad's nutshell, their task to crack it and devour the nut, or theme or moral or lesson. By the time these students begin reading more contemporary short fiction they're unprepared for the idea that sometimes the moral is more subjective, or perhaps, there is no moral.

We talked a lot this past year about Disney, and how they tend to make everything cute (despite the racism inherit in most of the drawings... the native scene in Peter Pan, for instance. Or Song of the South--
thanks Kat ; ). It would be a blast to compare the Grimm's to Disney. I think teenagers would really get a kick out of the original versions of these stories. Allow me to digress a little... teens are growing up in a world in which everything designed for kids is super tidy: the good guys win (in fact no one is supposed to lose), the women are idealized, no one ever gets hurt that doesn't deserve it, and God loves you no matter what you do. Parents are mystified at such wild phenomenon as "goth," "emo," and "cutting." I'm not suggesting to throw the babies out with the bath water... some kids are dealing with real evil, like neglect and abuse... but I think these trends are some kids' way of saying "enough is enough, nothing seems to be at stake in our lives and we're sick of being pampered!" So... I could see how kids might get a charge out of reading "The Robber Bridegroom," "Rapunzel," or the original "Snow White." I know I did. Furthermore, how can Edward or Bella hold a candle to Hades and Persephone? Isn't the wicked step-mother in Snow White kind of like Cassiopeia? I think examining these stories can be a nice way to show how certain archetypes are born and pop up again and again.

I think it might be easy to get carried away with scripture. Our high school literature textbook features excerpts from the King James book of Genesis. Maybe toss in Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac... the flood. I don't know. What would be the purpose? Maybe so I wouldn't feel bad about teaching Buddhist Scriptures like "The Bodhisattva and the Preacher of Patience" and "Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress"? Maybe just carve out religion altogether. I don't know. I want to resist the impulse to just teach what I like, but... Maybe these stories would make more sense in some sort of context.

Especially now that I'm in summer-mode I have to constantly remind myself why I shouldn't just teach The Zombie Survival Guide- it would be a lot more fun, it would lend itself to inter-disciplinary activities, and I'm interested in them... zombies, that is. Heck, it could save their lives! Wouldn't students ultimately get more out of something I personally love? No. Probably not. For the same reason you didn't get anything out of that course requirement as an undergrad in which the teacher lectured more about her family than her subject matter. Just because it's interesting to you doesn't mean it will be interesting to them. There has to be a more substantial reason to have it on the syllabus. In this case we have to ask - is it a piece that defines the genre? How can you ask that question of scripture? My gut tells me to leave scripture of the main world religions out entirely, which, as a result, probably means no Milton, Dante, etc. I don't know. I'll probably change my mind next week.

Until then, onward. I'm considering the pre-cursors to Realism next. I don't know what they're called. I don't even know if I've got Realism right. Anyway, what to do with Maupassant, Saki, O'Henry? Turgenev, Anderson, Washington Irving? Are they worth considering?

Monday, June 8, 2009

How to Effectively Read and Respond to an Article

I came up with these when I first started teaching. Some of my students weren't ready to choose a book for reading workshop. They were very low-level readers. My solution was to have them read a high interest magazine either in the classroom or in the tutoring area. Their assignment was to write a reaction to the article. I don't know if this kind of assignment was good or not, but these guys (mostly) would profess to hate reading, but you'd have to pry Dirt Bike magazine or Field and Stream from their cold, dead hands. After a while I wondered why I was fighting it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Rubrics in the Creative Writing Classroom

I know what you're thinking. "He's been brainwashed by those education-types." Maybe. I know that whenever anyone mentions using rubrics to assess creative work it's in jest. However, I've thought a lot about it, and here's what I came up with. I want to clarify that I use these only in "regular" english class (not fiction) when someone expresses interest in writing a story. I think rubrics can work to address some of the issues beginning writers face. Thanks goes to Kurt Vonnegut, without your wisdom this rubric would really stink.

Postscript 2013: see updated rubric here!