Friday, June 29, 2018


Asking teenagers to write about what they regret will not elicit much depth. It is not, as you might imagine, because they have not lived long enough to have gathered any regrets. They have. However, they do not recognize them yet. When you are young, everything seems like a worthwhile endeavor.  Studying hard to gain acceptance to a good college is obviously a wise choice. However, staying up all night and skinny dipping in the lake with your friends while imbibing illegal substances can also be an excellent decision in the mind of a teen.

After all, they need to make memories. Someday they will be middle-aged, worrying about interest rates, cholesterol levels, and their own irresponsible teens, so now is the time to embrace everything.

My younger sister once confessed that she and her best friend walked on the not-very-frozen ice of our pool one winter because they wanted to "make a memory." I admonished, "You're lucky you didn't make the memory of your best friend drowning at your slumber party!"

Naturally, this was not a consideration before they skated across the dangerous ice. Skating on thin ice is the preferred activity of many a teen, and if you honestly recall your own high school years, you were either skating all the time, going for an occasional skate, or wishing you had the nerve for such daring-do. I fall solidly into that final category. I never even bothered to put on skates.

At forty-eight years old, I see my regrets more clearly than my students or younger self ever could.
Despite rapidly deteriorating eyesight where I need to slide the novel closer and further away until the words swim up clearly, my vision grows ever clearer. I see my goals, relationships, and purpose with growing clarity. Regrets exist far back into my childhood--choices I made that I wish I had not, or rather, choices I did not make that I wish I had.

In the brief six months when I broke up with my high school boyfriend, I regret inaction. I found myself dancing to Human League's "I'm Only Human" in a dark gymnasium on Homecoming night.  My ex-boyfriend was three hours away, and I wish, even now, I had kissed the boy I was dancing with that night. I had a secret crush for years, but with the nervous contemplation that marked too many moments missed, I chose inaction.  I chose thinking over feeling. I also chose to return to the aforementioned ex a few months later.

The missed-kiss regret was tiny, like the shadow of a candle flame on a wall. The return to the boyfriend was a shadow that would hover darkly over twenty-eight years of my life, but I would not even see it that way for quite some time.

I regret ignoring the meek voice inside my heart that whispered to leave him so many times. She was whispering

at the panicky moment when he said he would move to Sacramento to be near me.
on the first night at college when he threw up in my friend's dorm room.
on the many nights when he was too drunk or stoned to call me.
on the weekends when I wanted to stay in my own apartment but drove to see him instead.
on that terrible day when a marriage proposal was a fait accompli instead of an ardent declaration of love.

I regret not kissing the boy on the dance floor my senior year,
or when he made Chinese food for me,
or when we giggled uncontrollably at the atonal contemporary music performance we both found absurd.

I regret not getting to know another boy who sang these lines from a country song each time he passed me in the halls at St. Mary's College:

"Amy, whatcha gonna do/ I think I could stay with you/For a while, maybe longer if I do."

I regret not even knowing if it was friendly banter or actual flirting. Because my romantic default has always been timid inaction, I still do not know the difference.

These regrets are not fueled by some misguided notion that either boy would have been more than a flirtation, a momentary distraction. There is no alternative timeline of my life with a Disney soundtrack and a romantic panoramic end shot of the couple melting into the perfect kiss.  However, my inability to embrace desire over constant caution, or to trust my own voice? These traits became the foundation later for a long, lonely marriage.

Why did I stay?
I stayed because I did not go.

I tied myself too young to someone who may not even be psychologically capable of love at all. I bound our two lives together with a cord braided with youth, idealism, and naivete, a cord strengthened by my Catholicism, by my sometimes strangely distant relationships with my family. The commitment was stubbornly blind, so the subsequent compromises just became part of my daily life, so mundane and pervasive I did not recognize them. In those moments, they were necessary sacrifices, resignation, surrendering my sense of self.  Now, they are the regrets that fill my memory.

I accepted I would no longer watch certain television shows because he didn't watch them.
I stopped eating foods he didn't like and started learning to cook the foods he did like.
I avoided cutting my hair because he preferred it long.
I allowed my political beliefs, my essential values, to alter, distort, and eventually change entirely.
I abdicated my voice in too many parenting decisions.
I moved away from the place where I had built a strong career and beautiful friendships because he convinced me it was the right choice.

It was not. The most painful realization about life-altering regrets is that they are only clear in the rear-view mirror.  When a therapist once said to me, "You should lead a support group for survivors of domestic abuse," my stomach lurched. My face flushed, and I wanted to flee the office. I am not a victim of anything. I am a successful, college-educated woman raising five children. I am not the face of domestic abuse; that's some other weak, timid, uneducated woman who is too afraid to stand up for herself.

Except that is not how it works. Despite all of my advantages, despite my public power and confidence, I began to tiptoe and enable, sublimate and rationalize.  Slowly, almost imperceptibly over time, I was lost.

When I made these choices, I was supremely confident they were the right ones for me, for my marriage, for my growing family. I used a million tiny decisions to pave a permanent path away from everything I wanted, away from the woman I longed to be.

I regret allowing myself to be defined by someone else.

This sounds like a trite topic for some talk show where the next segment will address self-care and the importance of date-nights in marriage, but I mean it in the most tangible way possible. I allowed myself to become what he needed me to be, and the transformation was so confident and complete that I believed it all. I became unrecognizable to myself. Those closest to me accepted this new person, even while they mourned the loss of the woman they knew. No one questioned me then.  It would not have mattered anyway. Having placed myself in such careful self-delusion, I did not recognize any changes had taken place.

Self-Delusion and Regret have held hands and skipped through most of my adult life while I waved from somewhere far off, not seeing the damage and life-delayed they created.

It is only now, at that mythical middle of my life, where, like Dante, I find myself "within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost." Only now am I reclaiming the self I lost, the self I gladly and stupidly gave away. I could be permanently paralyzed by my regret, but I am not. Rediscovery is the most exciting, fulfilling, and loving process I have ever experienced.  I am a new creation, and there are memories to be made.  I may go buy some skates. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Of Course, Again.

May 18, 2018

Numb. No shock. No more reassuring thought that "it could never happen here."

Of course it can. Of course it will.

My child chooses her seat in each class based on how quickly she might be able to exit when the shots begin.

Our children know we will not listen,
Or legislate
Or leverage political capital to change this.

Nothing will change.

You are expendable, Children.

We will be over here quibbling over the phrase "well-regulated" and the contemporary corollary of a "militia."

We will wring our hands and unconsciously drool "thoughts and prayers,"

But we will not stiffen our spines, nor stamp down our feet, nor speak in any kind of emphatic declarative sentences.

We will perhaps mutter or pontificate, and we will probably mumble and bloviate.

You are right, Dear Children, not to trust us.
You should be ashamed.
This is not how we raised you.

But not to worry,
In cities and towns across this nation, there will continue to be fewer and fewer of you

listening in fear
and casting down your eyes in disappointment and grief
because you no longer have ears to hear nor eyes to see.

Your bodies, riddled with bullets from weapons of war, have bled into clean, stark, numbers that will quickly be ignored.

Today's number is 10.
Today's city is in Texas.

I am numb, and we don't care, Children.
No longer believe us when we say we do.

Of course you surely stopped believing us quite some time ago.
We did not bother to notice because most of you do not vote in mid-term elections or show up at town hall meetings on a Wednesday in October.

We are liars in a land of lies
Where thousands of you lie under earth and stone.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Scrubbing a Roasting Pan: Chaos and Doubt in Motherhood

It sat beside the kitchen sink for awhile.  I'd like the definition of "awhile" to be a respectable two days or even a not-so-respectable-but-understandable four days.  However, honesty is all I have, Dear Reader.  Therefore I must confess: the roasting pan sat next to the kitchen sink for over two weeks.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Find Your Writers Before They Go

I am neither a Jewish New Yorker, nor an African American poet.  These truths are simple and irrefutable.  Yet through literature all things are possible.  One morning last spring a dear friend and colleague texted me: "Maya Angelou died today."  I realize that I am now of the age when the living writers I love, those whose words have informed and inspired me, are going to be dying.  Someday there will not be a new collection of Billy Collins poems.  My children and I agree that we can't even let ourselves think about the day when the Breaking News will say "J.K. Rowling, beloved author of the internationally popular Harry Potter novels..."  Yeah, I can't go there.

Two of my favorite writers have already died, so they will be the subject of this blog.  The writers we find in life allow us to live as we never have, be people we can never be.  Yet another bullet point in the list of reasons why reading is so important in life.

Nora Ephron

I once joked that I wished every movie starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (Smores, Like Gold in My Hand) It isn't because of Meg's girl-next-door smile, or that Tom is the Everyman.  It's the writing.  It's Nora.  I love her quick wit and sassiness. I love the clarity of her voice and the clean, simple style of her prose.  Ephron reveals truth in compact, simple sentences, a skill she honed as a journalist and one we all would do well to imitate.

She once said her mother advised her to see that the tragic stories of one day could be the comic stories of the next.  I have found her mother's wisdom to be true as I attempt to raise five children as a single mother who teaches high school.  The night the ants invaded the bathroom on a Tuesday I found myself on my hands and knees, sobbing about the frustration and injustice of my life.  I did not see the humor in that moment, nor did I want to write.  I just wanted to sleep.  I submit the novel version, however, might read something like this:

The Night of the Ants

They came in through the bathroom window, not nearly as welcome as if they had been a peppy Beatles song.  They came in huge and marching determinedly down the side of the shower, across the floor, around the perimeter, up the door, under the toilet paper, around to the garbage, under the sink, and back again in a seemingly endless circle of life except without the wisecracking meerkat or uplifting pop anthem.  They were carpenter ants.  The terrifying encounter came at 1:45 a.m. when I stumbled into the bathroom and was already busy before I ever opened my eyes.  I felt something tickle my feet. I opened my eyes, blinking furiously in horror to adjust to the light and the parade of smelly black ants everywhere I looked.  There was no shutting the bathroom door and dealing with it later.  It was the only bathroom for six people.  It had to be handled.  I had to handle it.  I dove in--ant spray, Windex, Clorox wipes--whatever I could find to swipe, kill, and destroy.  I worked furiously, with fear and loathing, so that any little person to enter the bathroom that night would not be greeted with the same nightmare vision.  They returned again and again like some kind of Terminator Ant Model #10,000 from far into the future.  Where the hell is John Connor when you really need him?

Nora Ephron comes to mind when I have a moment I think I can't bear.  If nothing else, surviving the moment means I might eventually be able to write something decent about it.  

The plays, screenplays,  and collections of essays she produced are laugh-out-loud-funny, even as they describe the lowest points of her life.  She turned her divorce into the darkly comic, brilliant screenplay Heartburn.  In explaining why she did not divorce sooner, even when she knew the marriage was over, she said she had an inordinate capacity for making lemonade.  This resonates with me as I look back on my own twenty-eight year relationship that died long before the marriage ever took place.  I have made too many pitchers of lemonade in my life.  As I grow old, I hope wisdom and humor will be layered into my pain the way they are in Ephron's work. She is a mentor for aging, not necessarily gracefully, but honestly.

Remember that your writers are those you want to quote.  My Nora Ephron quote saw me through the darkest days of my divorce.  I wish I had read these words at eighteen, but at least I have them now, and so do you, Dear Reader:

             "Above all be the heroine of your life, not the victim." 

Maya Angelou

When I started teaching at Santa Cruz High School in 1996 I was familiar with Maya Angelou's poetry.  I had not read any of her autobiographies.  For the next six years I taught I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to class after class of sophomores.  The book was core literature for all tenth graders.  It only takes a few sentences of Angelou's story to be transported to rural,  Depression-era Arkansas and transformed by the way Angelou's poetic prose uncurls off the page and attaches itself to your heart.  In her taffeta dress, with high hopes that she will feel like a movie star, her awkward, self-conscious,  younger self flees the church and we feel along with her "the unnecessary insult" not of being poor, black and a girl, but being aware of what that means--"the rust on the razor that threatens the throat."  Angelou was parent-less, poor, and living in an era long removed from my own.  I was a middle class white girl raised in rural California who attended a private Catholic college, but not for the moments her book held me enthralled.  

One gift of reading great literature is that it provides writing models.  A strong writer's voice, so difficult for my students to achieve, is easier to conceptualize when you read the strong voices of great writers.  Angelou doesn't sound like Hemingway doesn't sound like Poe doesn't sound like Dickens doesn't sound like you.  My students and I could look at Angelou's word choice, the order of her sentences, the music of her language and enjoy a master class in writing.  

Finally, as a new teacher Maya Angelou helped me to discuss sexual molestation, life in the segregated south, broken families, the insecurity of coming of age and being a young person who doesn't feel pretty or smart enough.  After tackling those issues through her text, what couldn't I teach?  If reading Angelou's work filled me with joy, teaching her work filled me with confidence.

On the day she died, I hadn't taught Angelou's book for many years.  The first thing I did when I arrived in my classroom that day was to take out my well loved, pencil-marked copy.  I reread passages I had highlighted and discussed with years of students.  I sat at my desk and cried.  I will miss her voice.  I feel so blessed that she will forever be one of my writers.  Perhaps she is one of yours.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Find Your Writers: William Shakespeare

Insults, Sex Ed, and Life Lessons

 I have now entered what may be considered cliche English teacher territory. You  were forced to read Shakespeare in school.  As a grown up, it's okay to return to him.  In fact, at any age Shakespeare's plays and poetry do what all literature should do. They offer us a doorway to ponder essential questions we all ask and attempt to answer.  I do not, nor should you, care so much about metaphor or symbolism.  While those things may be interesting, they aren't what's most exciting about reading.  The silly joy felt at bedtime when your Dad read Green Eggs and Ham. The tummy ache you felt along with the hungry caterpillar as he indulged in junk food that crazy Saturday.  All of that wonder and delight are possible in Shakespeare without analyzing text the way pretentious grad students do.  I know because I was once one of them. Trust high school English teacher me.  Trust love of literature me.  Let the high school angst go.  Read one of his plays voluntarily.  His work is not pretentious or condescending.  Shakespeare is entertainment for the masses.  He is Netflix or your local movie house.  No tuxedo or fruity British accent required.  Make yourself some popcorn, and don your favorite sweatpants.  You will not regret it.

He has witty retorts for your enemies, the sting of which they will immediately comprehend:"Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous." (As You Like It). You might enjoy those that can remain cryptic to a contemporary reader but be no less satisfying for you:  “You rampallian! You fustilarian!” (Henry IV, Part II). Try it yourself.  Click on the link below and use an insult generator.  Go ahead.  Someone's post on Facebook probably deserves a good zinger.  Shout them at your neighbor's barking dog!

Of course, Shakespeare is not all lighthearted ribbing.  He deals with death, too, as our high school reading taught us.  Hamlet grieves the loss of the father he loved so dearly and lost so suddenly.  Devastated by his mother's "o'erhasty marriage," he suspects (correctly) that his uncle Claudius really is a "dammned villain."  When his mother reminds him that all living things die, and asks Hamlet why it seems so particular with him, he tells he tells her:
Seems, madam? nay, it is, I know not "seems."
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. 

Hamlet, 1.2
All outward ways to show grief are so eclipsed by his actual suffering that he can't express it.  He mourns the loss of his father. He watches his mother move on so quickly that his grief is intensified by loneliness, and the throne that should by all rights be his, is now occupied by a man who labels Hamlet's grief "womanish."  These things are unbearable to Hamlet.

I recalled this speech from Hamlet on the day I buried my grandmother.  I knew that day would come, and at age ninety-two she fended off the inevitable for longer than most.  As my cousins and I stood at the lectern in a small Catholic church where I had attended so many masses as a child, each of our voices broke. Words failed us.

The responsorial psalm was "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." I believe my grandmother to be in Paradise with no wants.  However, like Hamlet, I was not. I still inhabited this "sterile promontory". Shepherd or not, I did want.  I wanted my grandmother back.  Why would we even be gathered together without her there?  She was the matriarch.  Who would make Easter bread for us?  Who would talk with me in the early morning hours while the valley fog hung heavy around the farmhouse that she and my grandfather built?  My grandmother walked me down the aisle at my wedding, and now I had to accompany her coffin to a quiet, small, terrifyingly final place in the ground and leave her there.

Yet somehow the loneliness and finality of that moment was helped by having read so many accounts in fiction of characters who had losses akin to my own.  I am not alone in any desperate state.  Shakespeare has written my pain already.  After all, by Act V even Hamlet becomes all Zen about things.  He acknowledges to his best friend that he is about to walk into a death trap (literally).  He may die at the hands of Laertes and evil Uncle/Father Claudius.  He may not.  However he concludes:  "The readiness is all" (Hamlet, 5.2).  And for any other trial in life on a lesser scale than death, Benedick's words always seem to enter my mind:  "For man is a giddy thing...and this is my conclusion" (Much Ado About Nothing, 5.4).  

Then there is the love.  Naive, easily deceived lovers (Claudio and Hero).  Witty, snarky lovers (Benedick and Beatrice).  Jealous love (Othello).  Strong, devoted wives (Portia).  Weak-willed hot messes (Gertrude).  In high school the perennial Shakespearean love story is that of Juliet and her Romeo.  It is not a love we would want for our sons and daughters.  It is tragic.  It is, as Juliet herself worries, "too rash, too unadvised," but it is the literary love all high school students encounter just as they enter the dating years.

Don't get me started on how unattractive Romeo is, as boyfriend material, ladies, at least in the first Act of the play.  Your true love should not be the Emo boy who sleeps all day, mopes all night, and allows his undying love for you to be extinguished the moment he sees the jewel in an Ethiop's ear that is Juliet.  He needs an anti-depressant.  He's probably cutting himself.  He is certainly annoying his friends and worrying his parents.

Someone should really write the story of Rosaline.  She is my hero.  Proud, strong and chaste, she rejects Romeo because she sees how weak he is.  She tells Romeo she plans to live chaste, but I think it may be that she knows, no matter how many gentle or passionate protestations he gives to the contrary, there is something wishy washy in Romeo's love.  Living chaste is just code for she's not that into you, young Montague.  While all of Verona mourns the dead lovers, somewhere in that ancient Italian city, Rosaline is raising a glass of red to her own impeccable instincts.  Perhaps she and Paris can marry.  It's probably the perfect match.  Neither of them seems like the type to take poison or stab themselves without thinking it through.  It is possible, Dear Reader, that parenthood has unfairly altered my reading of this play.

So why is there a Romeo and Juliet initiation into high school literature?  Poetry is one answer.  Light and dark imagery, bird imagery, references to the stars, the sun, the moon--it's all there.  I defy you to read the balcony scene and not be moved at some point.  It's the breathless, adoring way we all want to love and be loved.  The tragedy can come later; carpe diem, young lovers.

The play also allows students to identify with young people who are often powerless to follow their hearts in a world that rejects the idea of them as a couple.  Juliet's relationship with her father goes from his strangely modern claim to Paris early on that he believes Juliet should not yet marry and that she deserves to have a say in her choice of husband to a threat to leave her dying in the streets without food, home, or inheritance if she does not marry Paris.  Romeo and Juliet have even the stars conspiring to keep them apart.  Romeo must deal with his bros teasing him about being in love.  Juiet's Nurse helps the lovers, but when Juliet must face her father's ultimatim, she quickly advises Juliet just to marry Paris and forget she has another husband on earth.

The world is unjust.  Their parents don't understand them. It's us against the world, so no wonder their love is attractive to teens.  Juliet's come night speech --filled with downright sexy, beckoning verse, yearning for her lover, for the cloak of darkness, for striking out against the oppressive forces that hinder young people--is racy rebellious.

"Hood my unmanned blood bating in my cheeks./Come, night; come, Romeo, come"  Romeo and Juliet 3.2

I wonder if the school boards across America would like to take some credit for giving ninth graders everywhere such lyrical reasons to rebel, not to mention the passionate, planned sex.  After all Romeo makes arrangements for a wedding night ladder.  He thought of everything.  It's not like they are planning to paint Capulet's orchard walls, people!

While we're on the subject, do those same school boards know that teaching Romeo and Juliet involves the following topics and many more like them?  Every. Year.

1. Rude hand gestures around the world
2. Thrusting women against a wall and cutting off their maidenheads
3. Women growing bigger by men (pregnancy)
4. Breastfeeding
5. Wedding night sex

Mercutio says these lines in the play: "...the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind boy's butt shaft"(2.4) and "...the bawdy hand of the dial is now on the prick of noon" (2.4)

It does not matter what these lines actually meant to an Elizabethan audience.  To fourteen year olds in 2014 America, they read only as dirty jokes. No matter how quickly I explain something as a reference to Cupid's arrow; their minds have gone some other where.  Mercutio also makes fun of the older, overweight Nurse in the streets of Verona to the raucous approval of the other teen boys with him.  Nice.  We shall read that during fifth period and then head off to that anti-bullying assembly.

All English teachers appreciate irony.  Every year as I teach this play to the impressionable youth of America whose parents fret over curfews and Facebook posts, who put parental controls on the television and forbid their children to attend R rated movies, I appreciate irony.  This is why I love the works of William Shakespeare.  They speak to the human condition in all its messy, uncomfortable, often hilarious and awkward complexity.  Love and sex go together.  Young men enjoy a dirty joke.  Young women fantasize about being intimate with their boyfriends.  Not much has changed because what makes us human beings does not change.

In a list of my favorite writers, Shakespeare will always be there, not because I am a pretentious academic who wants to impress you but because I am a human being.  Notice I haven't addressed the difficulty of the language because it's really not that difficult and because you don't need to understand every word in every play or sonnet to feel Shakespeare speaks to you.  My ninth graders tackle it with great success every year.

Shakespeare isn't for tea and crumpets while wearing high heels and shiny nail polish.  He is for breathing in mountain air, stomping around in muddy spring puddles, and sweating it out on a satisfying hike.  Reading can be, should be, a journey that leads us to a better understanding of ourselves and the other selves around us.  While hiking through the human condition, Shakespeare is a wonderful trail guide.

You might think of Shakespeare's writing as the rich, dark chocolate you indulge in when no one is looking.  He is the thirty year old glass of Scotch you drink at your grandfather's birthday.  Shakespeare is all the delightful, precious, and fine possibilities in our language.  Do not deny yourself that pleasure, Dear Reader.  You deserve the best.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Find Your Writers: John Green

“Green writes books for young adults, but his voice is so compulsively readable that it defies categorization. The Fault in Our Stars proves that the hype surrounding Green is not overblown.” -NPR 

The rapidity of his speech.  His unabashed passion for...well, everything.  The clear-sighted way he sees teenagers, and the empathy and love with which he writes about them is unparalleled.  Now, you might think a high school teacher is bitter about teens and cynical about those years.  Quite the contrary.  I love young people.  I love their black and white way of seeing the world, their questions, their daily attempts to find their own path and voice, their enthusiasm, and their idealism.  John Green knows all of this, and just like Hazel Grace says about Peter Van Houten, I would read his shopping lists.  Hemingway once advised:  "Write the truest sentence you know."  So many sentences from his novels will resonate with you long after you finish reading.  Like Hemingway, his style is spare, clean, and honest.  He does not insult his audience by talking down to them.  His depiction of adolescence is truthful and joyful without being sentimental.  There are varying degrees of Holden Caufield in every teenager, and John Green may be one of the few people Holden would not accuse of being a phony.  I adore his novels enough to read them more than once, which is a rarer thing than you might imagine.  

 Moreover, my daughters do as well.  At a time in their lives when they are pulling away from me, I delight in the things we still share.  Cherished are the T.V. shows or movies equally loved by my pre-teen daughters and me.  Even more cherished are the books.  Their obsessive love of reading is something to feed and fuel.  I may feel guilty when I buy them donuts on a Saturday morning, or spend too much money at Forever 21, but I never feel any guilt about spending fifty dollars on John Green books for them.  They are like a literary Flinstones vitamin for me, and a midnight ice cream sundae for them.  Delicious, emotionally satisfying, and good for them.  For all of us.  

You should start with The Fault in Our Stars for many reasons.  It's his best novel.  You will begin and then not be able to stop reading until the last page.  You will then want to start over again because the characters are just that memorable, the ideas just that thought-provoking.  If you are a teenager, you will start looking for your own Augustus Waters or Hazel Grace Lancaster.  Will the novel break your heart and leave you cursing the writer who has left you in pieces on the floor with just his words?  Yes.  Yes, it will, which is why you must read it.  Furthermore, the movie comes out in less than a month.  Do not insult such a life-changing novel by seeing the movie first. It's shameful.

Green's novels do not need to be read in any particular order, so after TFIOS read anything this man has written.  He does not disappoint. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Find Your Writers

Dear High School Student,

I could write an open letter about sexually transmitted diseases.  Perhaps I could wax didactic about pot smoking.  After all if you don't take Nancy Reagan's insipid advice and say "no," you could watch yourself, from outside your body, allowing the enticing and rewarding to just float away into oblivion while you rationalize your isolated and increasingly sedentary existence.  That high deceived you.  You did not prove string theory or find Amelia Earhart last night.  It was just a video game and some Mountain Dew, and this morning your life has yet again not progressed.

I could do that, but I won't because I'm writing to you, Dear Student, about reading. What else?  Contrary to my current job description, I am, and will forever be, a teacher of literature.  Today I want to talk to you about how noble, and essential reading is.  Before you crumple up this letter, metaphorically speaking, hear me out.  Well, the hearing should be literal, the crumpling metaphorical.  Come to think of it, you are not literally able to hear me, so that is also metaphorical.  Most things are.  But I digress.  I do not mean the skill of reading.  Today I do not care about guessing meaning from context or decoding words by their Greek and Roman roots.  Let's be honest, even on my best day I don't care much about those things.  What I care about is you, Dear Reader.  I care about you, and because I do I have one request:

Find Your Writers.

You have already found your favorite movies, bands, snack foods, and youtube channels.  Your generation is adept at generating playlists and Instagram likes.  You know the exact filter you want to use on that picture of your Burrito Supreme so it looks kind of hipster, despite its corporate tool origins. I know you have opinions about all manner of things and a keen understanding of what you like and don't like.  So, find the perfect filter, post it to your Snapchat story or your Tumblr and come with me to that last frontier for some of you--the bookshelf.  

You must find your writers.  The ones who speak to you.  The ones you return to again and again.  You will share her poems with your friends when they go through a bad break up.  You will post colorful memes from a favorite chapter, and you will dream that someday you'll meet someone just like....  

Some of you have already found your writers, so you have an image right now in your mind.  Is it Augustus?  Four? Katniss? Holden? Hermione? Romeo? It should NOT be Romeo, but more on that later. Many of you have not found your writers though, and it is to you I write.  If you read enough, you will fall into the worlds created in fiction.  You will begin to see more clearly the Victorian sitting room as it is described.  You will taste the acrid smoke of the artillery fire, and when she brushes up against the sleeve of his wool coat as they share a cab, you will feel their chills.  Literature transports us, and since unfortunately the Doctor may not be coming in his TARDIS to whisk you away through all of time and space, you should start seeking your own adventures.

While the feeling of being lifted from your world into other realms is wonderful, do not read only for sensory pleasure and escape.  Reading can be a way to work through your fears, doubts, and insecurities.  A fictionalized, yet nonetheless realistic other self can be your therapist.  You cannot change your alcoholic father.  Swallowing anger and sadness poisons only your own blood.  However, find a novel that speaks in a voice like your own. If it is well-written, and so many of them are, it will help you.  You will say, "Yeah, dammit, that's how I feel!" A cynical person may tell you this is not real solace because it's just a book; it isn't real.  I submit to you that our understanding of what is real is decidedly and unimaginably limited.  When Harry realizes that the Kings Cross station encounter is happening in his head, he worries it is somehow not real.  Dumbledore reassures him: 

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”  

 Think about how much of your life every day is spent inside your head.  While sitting in class, while watching that cute girl laugh with her friends, while listening to your mom lecture you about your grades--there is a running monologue in your head.  Those thoughts aren't physically happening for all the world to see, but it doesn't make them less real to you.  They are yours, intimately yours.  Books can help you live the interior monologue of others, just as intimately as the voice in your own head because your reading voice is also in your own head.  Unless you read everything out loud, which is just odd.  You should probably see someone about that.  Instead of therapy, or writing more bad confessional poetry in your diary, try a book.  You will be pleasantly rewarded.  Find a writer whose voice you like, a writer who shares your most intimate concerns.  Then join that writer in a meditative conversation.  

Over the next few blogs I will submit to you some of my writers.  I do so in order to show you how and why writers come to be important to us.  Sometimes it is just the way their words roll around deliciously in our heads as we read.  At other times a book is yours because it came to you at a moment in your life when you needed it, and now it has become part of your heart and memory in a way that you are not willing to dismiss.  These writers are not mine because they are great necessarily, although I will fight anyone who says otherwise.  They are mine the way a particular stuffed animal was mine in my toddler bed.  They are mine the way I like my coffee with sugar and cream so it looks like a paper bag and tastes like an autumn morning.  They are mine the way my favorite jeans are mine.  The works of my writers fit. They make me happy.  I like holding them, drinking them in, and being inside them.  

I have many practical things to teach you, Dear Student, but when you love someone you tell them the truth.  The truth is I do not care if you remember the ending to Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace".  Nor do I care if years from now you remember the number of lines in a sonnet or how many metric feet are in a line of iambic pentameter.  I don't even care if you truly understand what the green light at the end of the dock represents.  Okay, perhaps I care a little about that one, but I'm willing to let it go in favor of a larger, more essential truth.  Reading enriches your life in ways incalculable, strange, and lasting.  This does not happen magically, nor does it happen with every book.  You must do the work.  You must find your writers.

My first writer for next time will be John Green.  If you have not already found him, I submit he could easily be one of your writers, too.  Unlike so many grouchy grown-ups, Green loves the place in your life where you find yourself right now--adolescence.  Until we meet again, I will sign off with a link to his Crash Course videos on The Great Gatsby because although I said I would let that green light go, I can't do it any more than Gatsby can.  Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of your as-yet-undiscovered-writers.  Besides, if you watch the videos now, you might begin to understand why John Green is one of my writers.  More on Mr. Green later.

For now, Dear Student, farewell.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 
--Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

So begins the film Out of Africa.  Meryl Streep portrays Isak Dinesen in her transformative journey from Europe to Africa and back again. In the film, Karen Blixen creates a new life for herself, a life she may not have thought possible. She defies expectation--a woman managing her own farm without a husband to help her. Technically she has a husband, but his interests lie more in womanizing and hunting than in farming. By the end of her journey the men in the local club who had at first shunned her, now toast her accomplishments. Their toast recognizes that the limits they had assumed bordered a woman's life were artificial. They toast her courage, to face and overcome hardships, and emerge on the other side.

That phrase--"I had a farm in Africa"--has been rattling around in my mind for the past twelve months ever since I entered a painful, terrifying period which started with the unknown and ended with my life transformed. I walked out of my old life, and holding tightly to my five children, entered a new one. While the geography of my transition was not sufficiently grand to warrant a John Williams score, the shift was no less dramatic. I thought I had entered into an abyss, the heart of a darkness I neither understood nor knew how to navigate without possibly losing my mind.  

Much to my relief, spasms and waves of relief over a long period of time, I did not slip into madness or embrace a Kurtz-like oblivion. Instead I discovered steps along a path already created for me that led to a sanctuary in the woods, a tiny cottage in the mountains.  Our time there, in that tiny house, may have seemed like hardship but it was actually Providence, complete with all of the old-fashioned grandeur of that word. On our journey, we were accompanied by angels, miracles, and the patient, loving hand of God.

Within twenty-four hours after I left my home, friends fiercely and generously surrounded me, and we were given a new place to live. While I want to publish the names of the two generous people who handed me keys and told me not to worry about rent for "as long as you need," I will allow them anonymity here. 

The seven hundred square foot cottage may seem inadequate in the abstract. Frankly, it was probably practically inadequate, too. One bathroom for six people. A potty-training boy and five females. Is that even possible? From the moment we arrived, we knew our time there was temporary. I lay awake in the small hours of the morning and stared around that tiny space while the sleeping inhalation and exhalation of five children hummed around me. Two on the futon on the floor with me. One more on the Murphy bed behind the couch.  Two more in the bedroom steps away.

I love my children, but I did not want them drooling on my pillow and kicking me in the kidneys permanently. When Karen arrived in Africa, she did not anticipate a return to Europe, but I knew the six of us could not stay here long, both because we did not want to try our friends' generosity and we needed more square footage.  

In the film Denis leaves Karen in solitude for long periods of time. She resents much as any woman can resent Robert Redford dressed like this:

In our house there was no solitude. Quiet stretches to contemplate and shape a story for our future did not exist. Each of us slept with at least one other person within arm's reach. My youngest ate his meals on the floor, using his Lego board as a table. School mornings were a jumble of arms, toothbrushes and curling irons in the bathroom followed by a frantic flurry to find shoes and backpacks piled up around the base of the wood stove.  Imagine how many pairs of shoes you own. Now multiply by six. Add in the organizational skills you had when you were 13, 11, 10, 5, and 3. The answer to this math problem is that you can't find your shoes.  

We didn't have an oven, so the previously frequent morning muffins and bread puddings disappeared. Affectionately dubbed "guilt muffins" by me, baked goods were a before-school gesture that helped me stave off the feelings of inadequacy faced by so many working mothers.

Instead, cold cereal or toast were the only possible options, and the eleven year old's penchant for smoothies, while a welcome change, also meant an alarm clock of grinding blender gears all too early in the morning. Why is the smoothie loving child also the one who rises first each day?  

Human beings can make anything work with the right attitude. There are always others who have it worse than me, a mantra that has fueled my perseverance through many a dark hour. I have found anything is possible, and not just survivable, but joyful.  

Just look at it--small, but inviting and warm--a sacred refuge. Please, Dear Reader, do not misunderstand me. Space was a problem, but the place, people, and landscape were only blessings.

Did you know Santa summers in the Sierra Nevada mountains? He fixes toilets and hauls garbage cans. He has his own wolf pack since it's too far south for his reindeer. Snow white beard and generous heart, the twinkle in the eye...all are still there, just put to use in other ways. My children have gone on adventurous treks with him up hills and into rivers.  Ask them; they will tell you.

My journey was not marked by a tense standoff with a lion or an airplane flight surveying the changing landscape of the African plain. However, the majesty of Africa's animals have nothing on the enormous grey lion, who perched on our bed and lounged in our front yard. He allowed my children to pet his mighty mane while he rolled on the gravel drive.  He walked out into the night and did not return, but we shall not forget his visits and hospitality, allowing us to share his home.

There were herds of deer who ambled through the yard and up the hill behind our bedroom windows. They paused curiously, wondering what we were doing there, and then moved on.

And there were two angels.  Did you know angels sometimes reside in ordinary homes? They maintain regular jobs and the mundane details of their own lives, while simultaneously generating magic and grace, beauty and joy, in the lives of others. They alighted in my front yard and whisked my children away for ice cream one warm summer evening. They picked up my children on a roaring metal steed and rambled around the mountains, even into the river to squeals of delight. They delivered lemon cake and stopped by just to make sure we were okay. They listened to me while I rambled and unpacked the fear and frustration, questions and worries of my heart. Angels come in human form, of this I am certain.

Sometimes the Lord pushes us away from all comforts, and allows us to journey into the terrifying unknown. Far from frightening, what I found was a way already prepared. The road rose to meet us, bringing necessities and graces alike. There was little physical space but unlimited emotional space, psychological space, in which I could remake my life, reimagine the possibilities of happiness for my children, and heal from years of lonely struggle. 

"Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”― Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

If I had continued to wait, not changing my life until it was convenient, affordable, and safe, I would not have changed anything. Instead, walking into the darkness led me to see that I need never fear. Ironically my favorite passage in Scripture is the verse "Be still and know that I am God." My experiences in 2013 illuminated what that verse has always meant, but I had not seen clearly. Our comfort in this life comes from God, yes, but He does not work alone. I did not need a mystical experience or radical conversion. I was shown that all around us, everyday, people do God's work in our lives. Friends. Colleagues. People from my church and community. Family far away. Sudden strangers. All conspired to guide, teach, and love me through it, and they did the same for each of my five children. Thank you. You know who you are. You have been prayed for by six grateful hearts, and you will remain treasures to us as we continue along paths known and unknown.  

“When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them.”    
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gertrude Louise Silveira

To tell a story about my grandmother, Gertie Silveira, is to tell many stories.  There can never be just one.  Some are goofy anecdotes about how she bought the can of Crisco, opened it at the register, drove home, and never paid for it.  Others are inspiring tales in which she and Papa didn't think twice about opening their trailer and their lives to a homeless couple. 

All stories reveal the same character trait: generosity.  My grandmother used her life to be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus.  She did not need to preach loudly or quote Scripture or ever point out the sins of others.  Instead,  she lived out the gospel in the way we are all called to do so:  through the work and actions of our lives. 

It was not unusual to arrive at Grandma's house and find people I did not know, and they were not just relatives I couldn't remember!  They were friends of friends or perhaps weary travelers who knew that a certain address on W. Hwy 140 is always a safe harbor.  There you will be given dinner or breakfast, a cup of coffee, and a warm bed with a handmade quilt. There you will be made to feel like family, whether you are related to Gertie or not.  She did not quibble over such distinctions.  

On the last day I saw her, I held my grandmother's face in my hands.  I said these important words to her:  "Woman, the happiest moments of my childhood took place in this house with you and Papa."  Ernest Hemingway once said, "Write the truest sentence that you know." Hemingway was right.  I don't know if I have ever said anything more true, and I am thankful I did.

My early childhood was waking up to the sounds of Grandma cutting, setting, and perming hair in the back porch, of sitting in my mother's lap while she and Grandma told endless stories, catching up on all of the people in our beautifully large family.  The smell of coffee and the rapid chatter as only the Avila female family line can achieve were the start to so many mornings while Dad and Uncle Kevin were duck hunting.  

As I grew my summers were spent picking blackberries on the canal in Papa and Grandma's aluminum boat.  Purple fingers, getting stuck on sandbars, loading up bucket after bucket that would become delicious, tart cobbler or pie.  We canned peaches in the backyard.  We also canned A LOT of apricots one summer when my sister, Kimberli, and I decided to see if we could pick enough of them from Grandma's tree to fill the entire surface of the pool.  It was an ambitious goal, and we came pretty close before Grandma discovered our treachery.  She later told me how angry she was, but it is a testament to her patience, her kindness, that I don't remember her anger.  I just recall picking those apricots and then canning them the next day!  I didn't know my childhood was like the romance of an old-fashioned American novel.  It was just Papa and Grandma's house--my favorite summer destination.

My second child, Claire, was born on the anniversary of Papa's death, and he never knew any of my children.  They never helped him make milk cans full of punch every July or watched his identical routine every afternoon after work like I did. They didn't get to follow him around the backyard doing his chores or receive fierce hugs from a man with a rock hard chest and saintly, quiet patience. 

However, my children were blessed with many years with Grandma.  They couldn't wait to make a bed on the living room floor with quilt after quilt--the bird one, the jeans one, the one where Mom could tell them which squares came from my shorts or Beanie Grandma's dress.  They thrilled to the smoky kitchen that meant hot, impossibly thin pancakes or finding cats Grandma saved in the backyard.  It is a rare gift to know your great grandmother that well, and I am happy they will be able to remember her on their own and not just through my stories.  

I do not know how to grieve a woman who is so woven into the fabric of my life, of the lives of my children.  I feel gratitude that God allowed her to stay with us for so long, and the only thing that lessens my sadness in losing her is to know she is reunited with the husband she ached for every minute after he was gone. 

This Christmas I will miss the endless parade of Santas around her home, but I will feel extra joy knowing that Grandma is finally home for Christmas, in Papa's arms, in the love of our Heavenly Father where I am certain she is being given an eternal reward for the life of generosity and profound love that she gave to all of us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

What Do They Teach Me?

Teachers praise the virtue of lifelong learning.  Much of what I really need to know, I have learned directly from my students.  My work has become increasingly frustrating, even heartbreaking, yet the magic of my time with students has not changed, and they teach me...everyday.

I have learned that they need me...not just to correct their comma splices or help them revise their run on sentences.  They need me to know them, to understand their lives, their dreams, their struggles.  They need me to be there everyday, to be present, and to require their presence in return.  We are a team in that room.  I've referred to it in a previous post as the beating heart at the center of the most important institution of our democracy.  A Problem Like Maria, September, 2010.

Even more, I have learned that my calling as a Christian is intimately linked to my calling as a teacher.  My students need love.  They need prayer.  They need me to be willing to give my time, talent and yes, even sometimes my treasure to help them navigate the path from child to adult, from student to lifelong learner.

I must be a candle, however small, however tenuous my flame, I must be a candle in my classroom.  I cannot merely curse the darkness.

That darkness is all around us.  It is in the grinding poverty that touches my own life and all too often engulfs the lives of my students.  It is in the clanging gong of a culture that tells them to defy authority, ignore the sacred, embrace vapid celebrity and empty violence.

The darkness has begun to move menacingly around the halls of this place I love so much.  It hovers over decisions to increase their class sizes every year, while telling them our decisions are based on "what's best for kids."  They are not numbers, units, or dollar signs. As someone who has been laid off due to budget cuts, I understand the gravity of California's fiscal mismanagement, and my rural community is no stranger to a recessed economy and shrinking opportunity.  However, those human beings in my classroom are not just delivery vehicles for ADA, and as their teacher, their teammate in that room, I am the one who must repeatedly remind those in power of that fact.

And yes, the darkness can even be seen among the people who have chosen this sacred profession.  A few can be guilty of treating it like a factory job, complete with punch card, coffee breaks and a numbness to the hearts and minds of the souls before them as maddening as a textile mill owner in the 1840s.   They are not the inconvenient roadblocks to your weekend motorcycle ride or trip to the coast.  No matter how exhausting and frustrating my day may be, I must not start to see them as impediments to my weekend.  Students know when we teach that way.  They speak up about it when we aren't around, and more importantly, they remember that we did not care enough to do our jobs.  Even while they cheer a movie day, they don't respect it.

When I am tired and demoralized, when yet another parent sends a rude email whose tone assumes I am the problem, I am the enemy, I sometimes gripe that this is a job, not a religious calling.  I say it with bumper sticker snappiness, but it belies my own discomfort because I know better.  No, I have not taken a vow of poverty and chastity, and I do not wear a black and white habit, but make no mistake, teachers are called.  We are called away from professions that reward us financially.  We did not choose cushy, respected, lucrative.  We chose damn hard.  We chose thankless.  We chose poverty.  Why?

Because of the senior boy who breaks down and cries in a room of forty-seven other teens and does not care because he just needs his teacher to listen, to help, to calm his fears about the future rushing to meet him before he feels ready.  He needs her to tell him, "It's okay because you won't feel ready.  No one ever does, but you will be...I'll make sure.  I'm your teacher, and I care."

Because of the sixth graders, posing with ear-to-ear grins in their Halloween costumes, who buzz with excitement over today's journal topic and can't stop talking because they bubble daily and furiously with creativity like a pot of boiling water, just waiting for me to drop the pasta.  Tell me about your day.  Write to me about what you would teach if you were a sixth grade teacher.  Come with me and let's learn the steps of mummification.  Let's click again on the part where we pour the brains into the canopic jar with the Egyptian head on it just because it's gross and fun and we forgot to notice we're learning.

Because of the beautifully written phrase about her father's heart attack and the snowflakes glinting around her face that day so many months ago.  Because of slowly unfolding description of his visit to Ground Zero, noticing how quiet, how holy, that place was amid the noisy cacophony of New York City.  Because sometimes ninth grade writing can actually move you to tears.  Did you know that?

Because of the teenager, from a supposedly self-absorbed generation, who quietly offers to replace his teacher's stolen cell phone with his own, or another who brings homemade cookies to say thank you for making her look forward to history class.

Because of the conversation about ethos, pathos and logos applied to Rufus Griswold's doctored letter from Edgar Allan Poe that so unfairly changed the public perception of one of America's finest writers.  We learned together that even a contemporary A & E Biography perpetuates the myth as fact.  Let's talk about the reliability of sources, even those at school, and then let's reel together, until you ask me, "Mrs. Weigel, do YOU ever read anything and actually believe it?"  A nineteenth century literary Battle Royal may not be the most exciting content for freshmen, but why do I teach?  Because it leads to questions like that.

Taylor Mali, teacher, writer and poet, offers some wisdom:

There is the teacher I want to be.  She lives in small moments, all too far apart these days.  She lives on my Pinterest boards with philosophy I believe and try to live by, with anchor charts I want to use, with warehouses of websites I need to explore.  She's there, that Platonic teacher, and I keep leaning toward her, I keep pushing myself to find her.  I keep hoping each student sees her at least a few times this year.

I keep wishing my school, my district, my leadership, my state,  would just allow me to be the teacher I know I can be.

Won't you just let us, my students and I, go into that room with adequate supplies, with reliable technology, with numbers that allow us to really know each other?  Won't you have a clear mission, a clear vision, so I can do my job?  Won't you please go tell those factory workers that the auto industry probably could use them because this profession needs a lot more passion and a lot less selfish complaining.  Go into that lunchroom and tell them the ship needs those that will swab the decks and trim the sails, and there's the plank if you don't want to work for students.

Our students need gardeners who will tend each shoot and speak kindly, who will offer water and sunshine.

I need to light a candle, not curse the darkness.  I am trying, and it is difficult.  Please help me because if you support me and steady my hand, together we can pass the flame along and illuminate this place again.  We can bring back its life, its spirit, and we can celebrate what we have made together.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Kindle Schmindle

The Kindle offers a clean, silent reading experience. I like the immediacy of having the book I  Just click on Kindle Store, and it's the Library at Alexandria. Well, not quite that grand, but you get the idea. I like the book light popping out,  helpfully allowing reading to continue well into the wee hours without disturbing sleepers nearby. However, all too often my Kindle experience has been disappointing, even disturbing. Why? Well, there are several reasons, not the least of which is I'm afraid I'm betraying the printed page.

Let me start with the strange Kindle feature at the bottom of each screen: your percentage completed.

First of all, I do not appreciate the encroachment of math into my sacred reading experience; it leaves me queasy and uneasy.  Similar to the tense moments while I wait to see how high the mercury rises on the baby thermometer, it's just not information I want. 27% is a number. I'd rather know that Katniss and Peeta are arriving in District 11 to greet Rue's haggard community of farmers. Tell me Mr. Rochester has just embraced Jane and called her an unearthly creature. Don't say 53% and counting. By the way, I'm making up those numbers. Kindle fans, please do not click to 53% in Bronte hoping to find that scene, and then send me neurotic comments about what Gothic treasure is actually found at 53%. Furthermore, Dear Reader, I think I may have graduate literature units revoked if I acknowledge publically that I read Jane Eyre on the Kindle. Well, the more accurate term is reread since the word only meant "to stoke a fire" when my eyes first moved through the pages of Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece. But I digress.

What disturbs me the most about this percentage feature is that it somehow makes reading a competition, and not just with myself.  At a recent school function, I spoke with the mother of one of my daughter's friends. I apologized for not allowing my twelve year old to attend the midnight showing of The Hunger Games with she and her daughter. (Mary is hoping her parents will relent by the time Katniss hits the theatres for a second installment). In talking about the series of books and her response to the film, I mentioned I was reading Catching Fire on my Kindle. Then, for no apparent reason, I shared that I was at 27%. She turned to me with a kind of smirk (did I imagine it?) and said "I'm at 35%." Why did it matter? To either of us? Why did I even feel the need to announce my percentage at all? Who cares? Is reading about the numbers or the experience? Character development? Rising Action? Do these things mean nothing? Am I just racing to the 100% finish line?

Something about that little % creates a feeling of inadequacy in me. It's no coincidence that the feature itself is called "the status bar." I bet that woman has hundreds more Facebook friends than I do, too. Furthermore, her blog has comments from every continent on the globe and followers who don't actually know her in the real world. Does she have a blog? I don't know for certain, but doesn't it seem like we all do? My great aunt has a blog about her garden, and my aforementioned daughter has at least three.

Blog gluttony aside, keeping track of mathematical progress through a novel doesn't even seem like something a reader would create. I bet it was generated by a tech nerd in a cubicle who wanted to garner some praise down at the Kindle factory, so he came up with the idea. He's also the type who reads the last page before he's actually on the last page. He looks at the number of pages and divides by 2 to locate see the exact middle of the book. He may even divide by 7 to give himself the number of pages he must read in order to finish the novel by the end of a week. I don't like him, or his percentage feature. He's a math boy, and he should keep his crazy ideas away from my reading experience.

My love-hate relationship with the Kindle continues when it comes to games. Thread Words. Every Word. That strange little one with the treasure chests. I love them all! However, they are digital and ever-present. It's much too easy for me to just click away from my novel and mindlessly look for a six letter word that starts with t and ends with h. I'm only human for God's sake. I want to read the detailed description of Jean Valjean as he steals the damn loaf of bread. I want to savor every syllable of the paragraphs as they unfold like drowsy summer roses, but I'm a busy woman. Let's be honest. As a working mother of five children, all under thirteen, my reading does not take place in a quiet parlour. I'm probably tackling Les Miserables while sprawled out on a toddler bed pretending to play hot wheels with my two year old. Don't judge me; he can't tell the difference. However, I can only stay focused on Hugo's prose for so long with constant interruptions like:

"Mommy, pay wif me," and "Look at big tuck, Mommy!"

Chances are I'm also dressing one of the many naked Barbie's in the Barbie bin, and desperately trying to find something that doesn't make her look like she's turning tricks. Believe me, there are not a lot of peasant blouses or baggy sweats in the Barbie collection.

I know this seems like another of my many rambling digressions, but I can bring it back around. Don't worry, Dear Reader. While my heart desperately wants to immerse myself in the fiction I so adored in my college years, my life is much more conducive to using the Kindle for mindless word games and searching on Amazon for books I'll probably never download. I successfully read the entire Hunger Games series using my daughter's Kindle, but then again Suzanne Collins is not Victor Hugo...or Charles Dickens...or George Eliot. The woman writes in fragments. Frequently.

The instant availability of these digital games lures me away from the reading I should do. Veggies are traded in for Twinkies, and Jean Valjean is poised, ready to grab the bread. He's still there on page...wait, I don't have page numbers. He's still there in some percentage I refuse to look up just to make my point. Katniss gobbled up the burnt loaf weeks ago, and the print on my keys is worn out from playing Every Word so much, but I can't seem to make the 21st Century technology of the Kindle merge with the thick, dense- with-detail novels of the 19th Century. They just don't play well together.


Asking teenagers to write about what they regret will not elicit much depth. It is not, as you might imagine, because they have not lived lo...