Thursday, March 26, 2015

Regular Students--Letter #23

Dear Governor Ducey,

Yesterday, I did go to teach writing at the jail. I was nervous right until I got there and then, as usual before I teach, I calmed down. We walked down hallway after hallway, through locked metal door after locked metal door. I was told not to look anyone in the eye, for it could come off as a challenge. I kept my head down.

The men in the class had all applied to be there. They were housed together in a group. My teaching hours were part of a larger program that taught the inmates how to write resumes, draft cover letters, explain to potential employers their time in jail. We met in the common area—a few 8 foot tables in rows. Their cells were right behind the tables. Two per. Toilet in each. I was told I might hear flushing—the student/inmates could get up and use the restroom whenever they wanted. They all had big plastic cups. I asked them what they were drinking. Danny said, “Iced tea with a little lemon and sugar, you know. Like in a can.” Ray said, “Coffee.”

I probably overdid it a bit, talking about form and nonfiction. I asked if any of them had heard of creative nonfiction. I made a really big deal about the oxymoronic nature of the term and about that’s one reason I love it. That the creative butts heads with the nonfiction. I said, you know when you write and it comes out a gloppy mess? When its all self-serving and self-indulgent and bemoaning your outcast state? I told them when that happens to me, I try to use something strict, like research, to give my writing some shape. I wrote about it here, how creativity needs a little structure, sometimes in the form of information, sometimes, like my friend Lynn, in the form of a sonnet. I asked them to brainstorm two separate things, one about them and one about something they knew about. For an example, we chose ingrown toenails for the thing about the self and 7-11 for the thing we knew something about.  You’ve done the brainstorming thing, right—free associating with little bubble planets coming out from the main sun of the idea? For ingrown toenails, we got pink, pain, pus and a story about some guy whose toenail grew all the way out of his toe. For 7-11, we got Big Gulp, Slurpee, Funyans, roller machines for hot dogs, and homewrecker, which they didn’t explain to me, due to, I guess, the tenderness of my ears.

I set them to work on their own two bubbles. Then, after a break, we came back and I asked them to write for two minutes from one bubble. After two minutes, I asked them to switch to their other bubble. Going back between “self” and “thing you know something about,” they switched 3 more times.  The only other rule is they had to use one word from the last sentence they wrote before I asked them to switch. Barry asked for a little clarification. I repeated the rules. Pete repeated them again for Barry. Barry and everyone else nodded that they got it and I started the timer.

Everyone wrote, which I had been warned wouldn’t happen. But there wasn’t a pencil (only pencils allowed, no pens) still. Furiously writing. Faster than my undergrads. As fast as my grad students.

8 minutes later, whole pages were filled.  I asked for volunteers to read their pieces. There were 16 students 11 of them stood up in front of the other students to read. Pete read about coaching and parenting, Ray wrote about football and bricklaying. Tom wrote about his dog and golf. Norman wrote about police and beer. Danny wrote about money and time. Boon wrote about working at Stanley Steamer and about the plot of land he hoped to own one day. Terrance read about fast food and Flagstaff. Then he asked if he could read a poem where the long a sound in “mistake” carried him through: Say. Chaste. Make, Pay, Waste. Make. Take. Haste.

It was a long two hours but also too short. It’s exhausting to teach. I’m really an introvert. I had to draw myself out. I had to explain big concepts and how to focus on the detail, the story, the pus, the Big Gulp. I had to show them how each of them had written something amazing and how amazing it was they had been willing to share. As I do with my regular students, I told them it’s easier to hear what you do well and repeat it than to stop doing what might not be working. Keep doing the stuff you do well.

These were amazing students. Each of them gave something to me by participating but really, to each other, by sharing. Sometimes, I wonder what the point of writing is. All this mess that has to be untangled and revised and reordered and re-seen. But maybe that’s what’s so excellent about it—the chance to see things from a new perspective. That’s what the double-bubble assignment is meant to teach. When you smash two unlikely things together, surprising words come out. To me, the standing up to share, even in a small group, is one of the great joys of writing and I was envious of them, in a way. The support they had for each other’s work. A community, these students have built.

I hated to leave them because I won’t be back for a while. This is a jail. No one’s there for too long—most, not even as long as a semester. I hoped they wouldn’t end up back there but I also wondered what jobs were there for them. I wonder if they had had a little more chance to go to college if they wouldn’t have ended up in jail at all. They wanted to work. They wanted to learn. Something, a lack of money, got in the way. You know,right, that it’s cheaper to send someone to college than to pay to house themin jail?


I ran out of time. I had another lesson planned. It will have to wait until I return. I was ready to read them the letters my grandfather wrote to his mom when he was in jail. I had a copy of a letter I sent to you ready for them to see. I think there’s a great lesson to be learned if you want to be heard.  Write a letter. Maybe someone will read it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Party of Yes--Letter #22!

Dear Governor Ducey,

I’ve avoided telling you this because I know you’ll hold it against me, but I’m on sabbatical. Tomorrow, I promise an accounting but today, I’m on my way to teach at the prison because I’m on sabbatical and I think it’s better to say ‘yes’ than ‘no’ when people invite you to do things. In fact, I say ‘yes’ probably too often. I like to be liked. It’s one of my worst character traits. For example, yesterday, after the West Fork creek hike, I went to work on my writing project at Indian Gardens. I sat on the patio to eat lunch and to type. I’m trying to revise a novel, I think I mentioned. It’s tricky to try to whole 300 pages of ideas in your head at once. There are some really knotty moments that I’m going to have to try to iron out. Maybe the book is a disaster. Maybe it’s good. I vacillate between moments of extreme certainty and extreme bewilderment, as Nick Flynn once called it.  Yesterday, I read on Facebook a post about Fanny Howe, who is a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, “In an essay titled "Doubt," Fanny Howe speaks of the moment when "doubt shows itself to be the physical double to belief, ... the invisible engine of hope, the force behind every step taken." She describes doubt as "a mesmerizing and glorious force" to be welcomed and mined rather than feared and avoided. By facing doubt, we own up to what we do not know and cannot control, and in doing so, may be granted a glimpse of grace.”

So I’m trying to be good with doubt and I’m trying to say ‘yes’ to things even though going to teach at the prison makes me nervous and I’m trying to learn to say ‘no’ to things that I only say ‘yes’ to because I want to be liked. As I was trying to write at Indian Gardens, trying to confront my doubt, trying to say ‘no’ to some sentences there, ‘yes’ to some chapter placements here, a couple asked if they could sit at my table—there were no other tables. Of course I said ‘yes.’ I kept working but they obviously wanted to chat. I could have been rude. I could have said, “I’m trying to write.” And perhaps if I were a less doubtful writer, maybe I would have. But my writing is just that—full of doubt and these people were certain people so I stopped typing and listened to their stories of where they were from and how their daughter Karen teaches at a performing arts school and loves her job but has 2 teenagers from a previous marriage and 2 little kids from her current marriage and is just plain worn out and the mother wondered if feminism had really just made it so her daughter was exhausted and trying to have it all at the risk of having a nervous breakdown. She was worried about her other daughter—the youngest, who has worked for three prime ministers but quit her political jobs to teach so maybe she could finally settle down and have kids, if she meets the right guy. The son, he’s a writer, too, but he has newly diagnosed neurological problems and is so full of doubt, he can’t say yes to a single sentence.  I could have written instead of listening for those 45 minutes. And, I admit, at the end, I turned back to my computer so I could claim a few minutes of writing time. But I think saying ‘yes’ to them was the better thing to do in the end.

I’m not nervous to teach at the prison because the students will be incarcerated, (I know I should get used to student prisoners and volunteer labor, since that is the future you imagine for Arizona’s future) but because teaching is always hard, especially when I don’t know the students and I hope I have enough of the right things to say.

But I’m doing it because I’m on sabbatical and I have time to say ‘yes’ and because I think it’s the right thing to do. Saying yes is its own problem. It’s the problem of the democrats. A curse and a gift. A generally great thing to say, ‘yes, I can help you out. Sure, I can be there for five minutes.’ ‘Yes, I believe we all deserve an equal shot.’ Republicans are the party of ‘no.’ ‘No, you can’t have any.’ ‘No, I don’t have any time.’ ‘No, you can’t sit there.’

The problem with being a party of ‘yes’ is that you’re prone to saying ‘yes’ at the expense of your writing—which is, in the end fine, with writing, but also ‘yes’ to your political adversaries, which is not so good for the people. ‘Sure,’ the democrats say, ‘we can give that a whirl.’ ‘Sure, we can compromise.’ ‘Sure, why don’t you take the money from the poor people and give it to the rich people? We can see how that goes.’ If you want to get anything done, either writing or policy-making, we’re sometimes going to have to be stern and say, ‘no.’


One day I will learn to balance assent with dissent but as an educator, assent is basically what I do. Dissent will have to be a part-time job until I become a better politician.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A good perspective--letter 21

Dear Governor Ducey,
I hiked up the west fork of Oak Creek today. It was a Tuesday. I thought no one would be there. But it’s spring break at ASU, I realized. Also, it’s Oak Creek. It’s always crowded. I was a little irritated, because of the crowds and because of the budget cuts to my university that mean good people are going to lose their jobs and good students are going to be priced out of school but then I thought, I shouldn’t be irritated, I’m on a hike on a Tuesday. It’s 65 degrees out. It’s an excellent hike. 3.3 miles up, 3.3 miles back. You cross the stream 13 times. I tried to walk fast to get ahead of the crowds but every crowd I got ahead of, I ran into another crowd. But everyone smiled at me, said hello. I stopped feeling so grouchy. For every nice person I passed, a little bit of my irritation slipped away. Also, it’s the most beautiful hike in the world. Wind-shaped red rocks cracked by water shaped white rocks. Moss dripping from them. Springs seeping through the sandstone, staining it black. I saw a bird with some weird dots on its wings. A snake swimming up the creek. Another bird made a weird noise as if I were in a rainforest.  Arizona is more than its politicians who want to undo every bit of progress made in the past 70 years, I remembered.


The oaks weren’t blooming yet so the view to the red cliffs was constant. So was the view of people hiking with walking sticks but not a single one of them passed without saying hello. Most of the people, although it was spring break, were retirees. They were so happy. But then I thought, maybe they’re so happy because of the tax cuts. Saving fourteen dollars a month so no one has to pay for any body else’s kids to go to school might be making their day. $14 pays for the parking fee in the West Fork parking lot with $4 leftover. A latte for them! And then I noticed the only people who weren’t smiling were people with kids. Some of them had five. I worried about how crowded West Fork would be when each of those kids had kids. But I bet the parents worried how they would afford college for each of their kids. Maybe prison will be cheaper. At least hiking is mostly free.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Weatherman. Letter 20

Dear Governor Ducey, 
While the rest of the country longs for spring, to come out of the dark, cold months, in Flagstaff, we would rather winter forever than bear spring. Spring comes, like it does everywhere, with warmer temperatures and longer days but in Flagstaff, it comes with wind. The nicer it looks outside the more powerful the breeze. I would go sit in the sunshine today but I would have to batten down my computer to keep it from flying away. I ride my bike more in the winter snow than I do in the spring wind. Even in Phoenix, you must still love the spring. You love every season, except maybe summer—and even then, like snow-bound Minnesotans, you love to say you survived the extremes.

I was thinking about why everyone seems up in arms in the winter about the policies enacted by a punishing legislature but by spring, everyone seems to have forgotten. Maybe it’s because it is so nice right now in Phoenix. You can sit outside, drink a margarita, worry about how you’re going to pay private school prices to send your kids to a public university another day.


But here in Flag, we are not drinking margaritas. The wind here is not the sea breezy kind. None of us wants rim salt flying into our eyeballs. Or sand, for that matter. Here in Flagstaff, we are bearing the wind as we bear you. With set jaws and a little bit of resignation. There are not nearly enough of us to vote you all out of office (plus, not all of Northern Arizona votes of one mind. Carlyle Begay, for example). We are sitting inside even when the temperature reads a comfortable 68 degrees, the wind whips cold. So instead of enjoying the sunshine, we are typing and sending emails and clicking on the “Recall Doug Ducey” button on Facebook. Maybe when real summer hits, we’ll take a break. But then it will be monsoon season. Huge storms will roll black with rain. We’ll thank the rain for making up for this year’s low snowfall. We’ll shake our heads in amazement at how far clouds can carry whole oceans. We’ll nod in surprise at how the ravens can take so much ocean dumped upon their heads. Ravens would make good political activists. They never give up. They make missions even out of wind. Even though Flagstaffians would rather join the ravens outdoors, the wind forces us inside. So we may as well type. We may as well email. We may as well not let people forget that although it looks bright and sunny out, the wind always comes back. We’ll keep blowing letters and emails and petitions from up here. One day, your spring and your summer, and worse, your fall, when you hold elections, are going to blow like Flagstaff springtime blows.  These letters are like wind. They’ll keep blowing. And, like Bob Dylan says, you won’t need a weatherman to know which way.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Roads Are Us--Letter #19

Dear Governor Ducey,

Yesterday, Erik and I were taking Max and Zoe on a bike ride.  We were going to ride down Butler to Inland Shores to ride around the lake. Max is 5 but he’s been riding his bike since last summer. It was just this week though that he really learned how to stop. On Friday, riding home from his grandma’s house, he turned right onto our street from Butler. He was going downhill and going too fast and you know the cinders they put on the streets when it snows (It snows in Flagstaff. I don’t know if you’ve been here or not in the winter) instead of salt because the salt was killing the Ponderosa pines. I guess the cinders help make the roads less slippery when its icy but for bikes, they make the roads more. As Max went to turn, his wheels slipped on the cinders and he fell down on his face. He has a big scrape on his nose.

I tell you all this as background to what happened as we were riding yesterday. Max was riding the right side of the road but he was trying to avoid cinders, which are all along the ride side. There are no sidewalks in our neighborhood but we were all riding mostly on the right. Cars veered around us. We were making progress. One car driver was particularly sensitive to the kids’ ages. He slowed way down, practically coming to a stop. A woman behind him stopped. Then she honked. Loudly. And then she got out of her car when the man wouldn’t move. She came over to me, red with anger, and started pointing her finger and shaking it at me,
“You have a lot of nerve. This is a ROAD!” She yelled at me.
I said back, “Roads are for everyone,” I said. I probably yelled a little.
Fortunately, Erik was right next to me. He backed me up. “Bikes and pedestrians have the right of way.” He might have yelled a little too.
She yelled back, “I am going to call the police. They’ll tell you that’s not true.”
(Really? The police? Because we were riding our bikes on the road? It’s Flagstaff. Everyone rides their bikes on the road. When there’s no snow). “Go ahead and call them,” Erik said.
Then, the guy who had stopped got out of his car. He started in yelling, “They’re just little kids. Of course they have the right of way. I’m going to call the police on you!”

I really don’t quite get where she was coming from. If she was so impatient, she could have driven around the guy on the left. I’m not exactly sure why she couldn’t just wait for a second for us to get out of the way. I guess some people really only think the world is their own. They don’t want to give space or time to anyone. The roads they drive on, they think they alone paid for them. Or were built for them. The rest of us are just in the way.

My favorite part was when Zoe said, “Hey mom, you know the lady who yelled at us? She didn’t even stop at the Stop sign.”

What I find disheartening is that the woman and the “it’s my road, not yours” is the emblem of the mentality that pervades Arizona politics. What a world we would live in if we were all the man in the car, waiting for the kids to pass, willing to share the road.