Thursday, May 28, 2009

Those Ubiquitous Cellphones

When I was a teenager living at home, my parents impressed upon me one of those arbitrary rules I never thought to question: Nice girls don’t call boys. The unspoken corollary, then, was that nice girls had to spend a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring—or as was much too often the case—not to ring. I’m ashamed now to admit how much time I spent waiting on those calls, some that came, others that never did.

By the time I was in college, I had learned—most of the time—to go on, to leave the dorm, where sometimes a dozen of us shared the same phone line, and to enjoy myself. If he wanted to get in touch badly enough, he’d keep calling. Some did; some didn’t. Without an answering machine or voice mail, I wasn’t always sure.

Only recently did I consider that single girls today don’t have to make the choice between sitting at home on the phone or going out with friends. The personal cell phone is considered more of a necessity now than transportation. Teachers are facing “beat ‘em or join ‘em” alternatives—trying to find ways to keep the ubiquitous devices from, at best, interrupting classes, and at worst, enabling a network of cheating previously unfathomable. (I heard one algebra teaching describing an illicitly used cell phone as a “weapon of math disruption.”) I’ve seen cell phone quizzes—set up like American Idol votes—in which students call in answer and see their responses reflected on a Smartboard screen in the front of the classroom.

I can’t imagine how uninterrupted phone access would have changed my life: what “roads not taken” could have led to a completely different life? What teen angst could I have avoided if I hadn’t been tethered to the umbilicus of South Central Bell?

About the time I had begun to envy these young girls in this Millennial generation, though, free to make their own phone calls, to go when and where they wished, never worrying about missing a life-changing call, I saw the preview for the movie He’s Just Not That Into You. Drew Barrymore’s character made clear that downside of twenty-four hour access: guys today, she noted, have at least six different ways to break up with you.

Even my reading reminds me how much cell phones have changed life. I just finished Jane Smiley’s novel Good Faith, a book that particularly interested me because it examines the real estate industry in the early 80s. Since my own short-lived real estate career ended in early 1982 when interest rates hovered around 16.5% and when, like Smiley’s protagonist Joe, I also worked on rezoning for subdivisions and other land development, I found much of the novel entirely believable.

What struck me now, though, is how much cell phones would have affected the characters’ business and personal lives. Every time a character missed a call or worried about how to locate someone during an unexplained absence, my instinct responded, “Call her cell!”

How quickly those little devices have become a necessary evil. Next month I travel to Chicago for a few days, where I always visit the Art Institute, where one of my favorite large pantings hangs—Caillebotte’s Paris Streets; Rainy Day. A docent there once pointed out that when the painting was created, umbrellas, now so common place we barely notice them, were a relatively new development. I had to wonder if Caillebotte were painting now, if he might have a companion painting—the same Paris Street on a sunny day, everyone scurrying around, cellphones held firmly to their ears.

Other People's Book Lists

Recently, I sent a note on Facebook, asking some of my reading friends what they have on their short stacks for summer. Since I get some of my best recommendations from others, I thought I'd share them. I'd love to hear from others.

Amber says she plans to read a couple I just finished--The Help and Olive Kitteridge (which won the Pulitzer Prize.) She also plans to read The Beautiful Ache (McLeroy) and A Mad Desire to Dance (Wiesel).

Sandy is reading The Order of Things (Lynne Hinton) and the second, third, and fourth books in the Twilight series (to be able to converse with her friends who are reading them).

The other books she's reading, all nonfiction, share a common theme: they are all books on writing or language with an interesting twist:

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (Theodore M. Bernstein)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Lynne Truss)
Spunk & Bite
(Arthur Plotnik)
The Elephants of Style (Bill Walsh)
Woe Is I (Patricia T. O'Conner)
Old Friend from Far Away (Natalie Goldberg--who also wrote a favorite, Writing Down the Bones).

Anthony says he plans to read Spenser's Fairie Queene, and he doesn't know that he'll get any further.

Carol recommended The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman), although she doesn't usually read a lot of YA fiction.

Kathy shared the next few on her book club list. They just read Loving Frank then took a road trip to visit the Rosenbaum house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Florence, AL (my hometown).

As for me, the summer's just beginning. I'm finishing Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book and plan to start A Reliable Wife soon. Then I may start Woods Burner, a novel based on the time Henry David Thoreau accidentally burned a stand of woods (not exactly his best environmental moment, eh?)


Monday, May 18, 2009

First Novels

According the conventional wisdom, everyone has at least one novel inside waiting to come out. Whether everyone has the words, perseverance, or even the desire to get that story on paper is another issue altogether. Quite often, though, I've encountered first novels that are beautiful, powerful works of literature. All of us wonder what Harper Lee might have written if she's ventured beyond To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely we would have snatched up Margaret Mitchell's sequel to Gone with the Wind, had she not had that untimely death.

Even for those who go on to produce many other novels, the first one may be rich, despite inexperience with the form, because writers let it roll around in their heads before they finally get the courage or the motivation to get it down on paper.

Kathyrn Stockett's first novel The Help tells the story of black maids and their white employers during the turbulent 1960's. While her white protagonist Skeeter may be only partly autobiographical, Stockett's leaves little doubt in her epilogue that her own experiences with her own family's maid Demetric compelled her to write the story. She admits uncertainty about her ability to speak authentically from the point of view of her other two narrators, Aibileen and Minny, but she felt the story was important to tell.

She even admits in her last pages that in spite of her editor's fact checker, she included a few details anachronistically. She inserts a reference to Dylan's The Times, They are a'Changin'," despite knowing it wasn't released until a year after the events in the book because it wasn't central to the plot but reinforced a point for her characters.

While I grew up in a Southern family that certainly never had full-time help, my mother occasionally employed an ironing lady. (Having grown up despising ironing in a time when even sheets weren't permaprest, that was one of Mama's rare indulgences. Since she was raising five daughters, the ironing pile was a constant.) The most colorful of these employees I remember was Frankie Lee, who drank huge glass-bottled Pepsis for lunch and watched the soaps as she worked.

Our family's relationship with African-Americans wasn't quite stereotypical in the South either. At one point, to supplement his preacher's income (back in the day when preacher's didn't bring home the big bucks, at least not in untelevised congregations), Dad built spec houses with a partner. One of these houses, a tidy one-story ranch, was built on one of the few vacant lots in an older, established neighborhood. The residents around the building site, many quite content for the lot to stay vacant, began spreading rumors about what just might happen if "the wrong kind of people" bought the house. Getting wind of the rumors, Daddy convinced the woman who ironed for us and a young black college student who attended the Christian Student Center where Daddy served as campus minister to ride over with him to the house and pose as potential home buyers at a time when the neighbors were more likely to be home to see. They all had a big laugh when they got back in the car.

Stockett also describes the quandary of being from Mississippi (and by extension for me, Alabama): It's all right for us to complain about our home state, but we just dare an outsider to do so. And while the social climate still has a long way to go in some areas, the times, they are a changin'.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Three Reasons I Teach

June, July, and August! That's the teacher joke with a strong element of truth. Today is the last day of my school year. My last student has finished up the exam period, and I have only tail ends of straggling papers to score before I post final semester grades. Many of my colleagues continue to teach through the summer, but as much as I love my job, I need those summer months to recharge my batteries.

I look forward to some short trips--Richmond, Nashville (to see the grandbabies), Chicago, and back home to Florence, Alabama, for the Longshore family reunion. In the meantime, I look forward to some writing projects and, of course, to catching up on those stacks of books that beckon.

I have Pride and Prejudice to re-read for a study guide I'm completing this summer, and for my book club, Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help. In the car right now, I'm well into Jane Smiley's novel Good Faith, a novel set in the world of real estate (a world in which I lived for a time, in fact.) I've always been interested in books written by men using a female protagonist or vice versa. This is such a book, and Smiley writes convincingly (as far as I can know) from the male point of view.

On my Sony E-book, I was finally able to download Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, a novel that begins in Sarajevo with a protagonist who works studying and preserving ancient manuscripts. Beyond that, I'm an impulse reader. I welcome good recommendations coming my way. For now, though, I'm ready for a well-deserved nap!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Two-fer Weekend

This weekend, I finished two totally different books, and because I've been able to separate my audiobook experiences from print text, they don't interfere with one another any more than two distinct conversations would.

The first, James Meek's The People's Act of Love challenged me at first. I've had a copy of the book on my shelf since it arrived from Lemuria, but since so many others competed for my attention, I hadn't started it. I started the audio version and almost stopped reading at first. Set in Russia in early 1900's, the book was filled with characters whose Russian name I couldn't immediately see in my head. At first I wondered if I could make it through all 12 CDs. As often happens to the patient reader, however, I was rewarded by perseverance. I continued in part because of the author's skillful use of the language, the surprising similes, the revealing human thought.

Athough I won't give anything away, the real hook comes in the war experiences of the husband of Anya, one of the main characters in the story. Her experiences really transcend the time and place in which the novel is set. When I reached the end, I was so glad I'd finished.

Today, I finished John Elder Robinson's Look Me in the Eye. As I reached the end, I realized this would be a great book for our students. We had such a strong response to Glass Castle in the fall. This too is the story of an adult child who reaches the point of understanding and forgiving parents. Robinson's more famous brother Augusten Burroughs included him as a character in his book Running with Scissors. At readings, Burroughs was surprised by the interest in John's Asperger's Syndrome (a form of austism that went undetected until he was forty.)

This memoir offers so much insight not only into those with Asperger's but into anyone whose inner problems prevent their appearing normal. That he has been so successful, developing strategies on his own to overcome many of his strangest behaviors is so encouraging. Teachers can also benefit from the reminder that misbehavior and academic failure have been root causes. Taking the time to look beyond differences might help save others from defeat and loneliness.

Another reason I can imagine using this book in class is the resource information he adds in the back of the book--contact information about his business, his syndrome, and his interests, including the band KISS for whom he created those incredible exploding guitars that really played.

Now I must exercise self control, waiting until research papers and proposals are graded before begining the next good book.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry Competing for Reading Time--A Marvelous Dilemma

I often catch myself posting in the wee hours or right in the middle of a busy day--often as a break or distraction from whatever I should be doing at the time (usually grading papers.) This month I have posted less frequently perhaps because my semester is winding to a close and also because I have been participating in the Poetic Asides Poem a Day Challenge. As of yesterday, I am please to report that I met the challenge. Along with a few hundred other people from across the country and around the world, I checked Robert Lee Brewer (Writers Digest) site every day for a prompt.

The goal is not necessarily finely polished poems but good drafts. I first participated this time last year and found the experience so inspirational. A lovely secondary benefit was a little community of fellow poets who shared and responded to one another's poetry. This year when the initial days' posts numbered up to 1000, we were a little overwhelmed. After all, we were accustomed to reading all the posts every day and sending out kudos to the ones we loved.

To keep this active participation alive one of the "regulars" organized a Facebook subcommunity. The first person online each day started a message in the inbox to all of the fellow poets, and we posted there. It has been a delightful experience. We range from Germany and Spain and Mexico to Florida, North Carolina, California, Minnesota, and parts unknown. The conversations have extended beyond what we write to our lives, our families, our favorite poets, and more.

Now that April has ended, we have only to wait for the judging--Yes, this year, fifty of the poems will be selected by a hierarchy of judges including thirty professional poets for an E-book. Until then, we are suffering from prompt withdrawal--or at least until Wednesday when Robert starts postly monthly prompts again.