Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Teaching Ferguson

I did not screw it up. Or, rather, my students did not screw it up. This was my intro to nonfiction class and my students are freshman and sophomores mostly. And they are new to college. They are a little shy. They can be easily distracted. And they are brilliant. I was nervous--maybe they'd be annoyed they'd read for class and we weren't going to talk about the text. Maybe because this is a creative writing class, not a political science class. Maybe because the phrase "white privilege" was going to come up and the knee-jerk response to white-privilege is to get defensive. 

The minute I came in I told them we would be talking about Ferguson. I said something like, "Look, mostly I'm a hand-wringer. Climate change. Wring hands. Citizens United. Wring hands. Unlawful murder. Wring hands. But I have to stop wringing my hands. Or at least wring them with you."

I asked, "So why do you think what's happening in Ferguson is happening in Ferguson."

I wasn't prepared (should have been) that some students didn't know what was happening in Ferguson. Fortunately, I brought a poem! one of my grad students wrote and posted on Facebook that did a good job describing some of the facts along with some of the helpful rhetoric we would talk about, "Forty seven days, you stand, pre-recording your message, not wearing your uniform, hoping we forget you are one of them."

I gave a short synopsis: that a black, unarmed kid was walking down the street and was shot by a policeman from more than 100 feet away for stealing a pack of Swisher Sweets.  I said, you know I have a little boy named Max. He is 4. If, when he is 18 years old, he steals a pack of cheap cigars, the worst that will happen to him is that he'll get arrested. The most likely thing is, he'll be told "don't do that again" and be sent on his way. Whatever it is, he won't be shot by a policeman from over a hundred feet away. 

And then I asked, "How many of you have heard the phrase 'driving while black'?" One student told me about living in Nogales. Every week, they drive to Tucson to shop or to visit their friends. Her mom, blond haired, blue-eyed is waved right through. Her dad, who is latino, is stopped at the checkpoint (fifty miles north of the border), every time even though the border patrol agents know him, know their car. Another student talked about being from Pittsburgh. She saw a black guy walking down the street. Some cops jumped him, beat the hell out of him, and left him in the street. One student talked about her criminal justice class and how a fellow student wrote a poem about white privilege, quoting lines about how she could go to the bar, walk down the street, buy doughnuts, without feeling like she was out of place, without being harassed, without being afraid that someone would point out she wasn't white. I handed out this poem.
alternate names for black boys
BY DANEZ SMITH1.   smoke above the burning bush
2.   archnemesis of summer night
3.   first son of soil
4.   coal awaiting spark & wind
5.   guilty until proven dead
6.   oil heavy starlight
7.   monster until proven ghost
8.   gone
9.   phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
       but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

Then we talked about why poetry might work better for this, immediately. Because an essay argues even if it doesn't mean to. Because the images of the poem smack you in the face. Because the emotion is right on the surface. Because the "me" in the poem is so personal compared to the public "me" of the essay. Because the connective parts between images would require a "because." We talked about wanting to be a noun (person) instead of an adjective (black). We talked about the phrase white privilege. We talked about what we could do. (Talk more, was mostly our answer). We talked about how to begin to dismantle a system where there two boys live in two very different countries. One for white boys who can walk down the street without looking over their shoulder, who can steal a pack of cheap cigars, who can even mouth off to a cop without fear of reprisal and one for black boys, who can't. 

It was so intense, I got so tired. I imagine that if I were black, teaching, I would feel this tired every day. But it was so good.  Maybe the best teaching day ever, thanks to my students, who are so aware, and, even if not aware, amenable to becoming aware. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

It Shouldn't Be Like This. Or Maybe It Should.

I don't have time to write this but I don't have time to do anything else either so I'm giving up and writing this and hopefully I will this give up and write something else soon too. Today, like all the days that you think have internal organization and lists and priorities and plans has turned to Ninjago watching, phone-calling, toast-making, exercise-when wondering, tile-guy calling, Dave chatting about quitting drinking and hauling water out to Fort Valley and a $20,000 road tax lien on his house, grant proposal review, grant-writing, friend-press-seeking-help, soccer kids snack day emailing, guest writers series-fretting, guest writers visiting in my house next weekend washing, letter of rec writing already, conference center planning, Kit Kat nay-saying, Kit Kat opening, lit mag grant check depositing, post pub book sending, pant searching, dog petting, mohawk upsticking morning that has almost turned to afternoon. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

Friday, August 08, 2014


1. Let's end on an up note. While 2014 seems to have been a year of writerly and career set-backs, it's not entirely true. Quench won two awards--one from the Viola and one from Independent Publishers. My Micro-chapbook is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review. Witness picked up an essay. The New Yorker sent me a sweet rejection. Better magazine published an essay. I am reviewing excellent books for blurbs and reviews. I had a party. I traveled to Telluride. Seattle. Helena. Twin Falls. Salt Lake. The only western states I'll miss this year are Oregon and New Mexico. I got two writing grants--one from the Arts Commission and one from my school. I helped to get two grants for my school. I have guest writers lined up, guests coming to visit, weddings to attend and a sabbatical looming. My students send me thank you cards and let's get back to class emails. This year, Max and Zoe were sick so rarely--and I think Max's immune system is almost up to full-Kindergarten assault preparedness status.

2. Max and Zoe. On their bikes. Max is going to try to pedal his Spiderman bike since he call balance on his pushbike all the way from our house to Grandma's. Zoe is riding my bike. Does this mean a new bike is in my forecast. My future holds bike riding and that is the best kind of future one could wish for.

3. The lesson for the summer is: Writing is fun. Revising is not. Yesterday, I realized why revising takes me so long. I'm reading along, things are going well and I hit upon a sentence that reads something like, "And then her her ate the position." I have no idea what I was trying to say. If I delete it, will I lose some important that comes up later? Is this a key to the character's identity? Is this a leitmotif? So, stressed, I look to Facebook or recipe suggestions for dinner for help. This is a slow defensive mechanism. I should try to stick to the uncomfortable. It's a good lesson for life and for summer's ending.

Two writing manifestos to go push ahead:

From Richard Powers' Orfeo, page 322. 

Let no one persuade you of a single thing. Study your hunger and how to feed it. Trust in whatever sounds twist your viscera. Write in the cadences of first love, of second chances, of air raids, of outrage, of the hideous and the hilarious, of headlong acceptance or curt refusal. Make the bitter music of  bumdom, the sad shanties of landlessness, cool at the equator and fluid at the pole. Set the sounds that angels make after an all-night orgy. Whatever lengthens the day, whatever gets you through the night. Make the music that you need, for need will be over, soon enough. Let your progressions predict time’s end and recollect the dead as if they’re all still her. Because they are.  

And from Dinty Moore's Facebook: 
"I write because I’m suffering, and the world is suffering, too, and I believe a great story, well written, can help as much as anything." ~ Alan Heathcock

Thursday, August 07, 2014


1. After I posted yesterday's blog, I was so sad. One pure moment. I only wanted one thing, which was for yesterday to never end. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle lunchbox packed. File folders bound in file binder. Clothes laid out. Alarms set. I could have lived on the cusp of waiting but today came anyway. No one cried this morning.  We rode our bikes again. Max can ride his push bike. This weekend, we're going to try him out on his Spiderman bike. Pedals. No training wheels. Because sometimes you just have to push ahead.

2. I woke up this morning knowing I was a fraud and an impostor. Someone had written something on Facebook about something cool, like locusts for dinner or the battle of Ticonderoga and I just knew that I knew nothing. Even if I look something up for a second, I'm really replaying old Wikipedia songs in my head. I know sinking thoughts only sink. It took a long time to open a Word Document. I was so low, I preferred filling out the 11 pages of the Arizona Cultural Data Project form to writing.

3. But then I did open the document and found some words that made me think not all was lost. It made me say, I am not as a bad a writer as some people. I would like to put that in my next query letter. I am competitive but I have low goals. I realize, I have to be a better marketer. I'm getting the hang of it. "Here's an exquisite book about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their love of pizza. I like pizza too. Please read my mutant book about artichokes and pizza. Love, manuscript-seller." Everyone loves pizza.

Or perhaps the short form is more suitable for my style. Thus, the short blog post. The short number of posts. The short time until this blog-thirty-day project is over. What will I do then? Complain to the wind about the way time keeps pushing forward? Or do I type shortly, backwards? That's a marketing strategy in itself.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014


1. I've gotten in a lot of trouble this summer. I lost Max at Hullaballoo for forty-seven seconds. Yesterday, I got in trouble for swimming while Max watched from the side of the pool. I got yelled at (rightfully so) but the woman at the hot springs when I tried to get the kids in for free. The driver pulling the Hummer with the boat yelled at me for letting Zoe ride her bike, you know, where only Hummers are allowed to go. I didn't send the grant forms the right day and didn't process my one grant through sponsored projects. I had typos. I had agent-types tell me I wasn't a science-writer (no duh) and agents say essay collections are impossible to sell. I had to tell people no, thanks, for the grant opportunity but it's not going to work. It's been hard on me. I'm usually such a pleaser-type. Don't get mad at me! But one thing I like about getting in trouble is that I get used to the pain and then I can get in trouble a little bit more. It's a risky life. Might as well live it. I plan to write trouble all day tomorrow when I can get in less trouble with the kids.

2. I am on a mission to tell Max "no" less for that very reason. You develop an armor against "no" and then what's one "no" versus another. Of course, Max's requests are often unreasonable like can I have another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle show and can I have another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fruit snack and can I have another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirt and can I take my sword on my hike. I let him take his sword on the hike because otherwise I would have to say nothing but "no." My friend Julie once mentioned some of the best child-rearing advice she heard: It's not about saying "yes" or "no" but about the slide toward "yes" from "no." If you're going to say "yes," say "yes" right off the bat, which I'm, like Molly Bloom, trying to do.

3. On the last day before school starts, I made the kids go hiking with me on Fat Man's Loop on Mt. Elden because a) it's our last day of summer, b) I wanted to spend time with just them and no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (sword and fruit snacks notwithstanding) and c) I wanted them to remember, summer has its own pain. We hiked up the hill. Up was easy. Down was slippery sand. Max fell a bunch and said, "I never ever ever ever want to go on this hike again." Success! Think about when I drop him off at school tomorrow. I can be like, that's fine, let's go home. We can hike Fat Man's Loop again.

In the future, I will regret not wearing a hat every day of my life. But hats are hot. But I will wrinkle. I will regret having spent most of my life a well-temperatured, hat-free person when I am old and wrinkly. Maybe it's not too late. (It's too late.)

Truly, I think they liked it, mostly. There were fruit snacks. Rocks to climb. Fruiting yucca plants. Views of Flagstaff as far as you could see. Alligator Junipers. Lizards. A sign that you could walk to Buffalo Park in only 3.8 miles. They noticed the way the trailer builders dug logs into the trail to keep the water from washing out the path. Evidence of rain channels ran to the left and the right. They figured out why they couldn't see downtown or NAU or the airport (Mt. Elden is in the middle of town. Flagstaff wraps around it. If we kept walking toward Buffalo Park, we could have seen the 180 degree view of the town).

My dream is that tonight will be like last night and we will walk over to my mother-in-law's to check on her plants while Zoe rides her bike and Max practices riding his push bike, then we'll come back and sit on the side deck and watch the sunset but instead we will be packing lunches and backpacks and getting to bed at a reasonable hour. Unless we decide we should get in just a little more trouble.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014


1. Max is four. Max is multiple times four. Max is kind of nonstop. This morning, preschool orientation, he kept asking, "You're going to stay with me?"  I said, "Yes. I will stay. But only today. Thursday, you're on your own." "But you're going to stay, right?" He's been going to preschool/daycare for almost 4 years. You think he'd be used to the system. I think camp/summer actually made his separation anxiety worse. New camp every week in between whole weeks of nonstop mom. Nonstop mom isn't any more fun than nonstop Max except I'm always willing to find his Legos for him which is more my problem than his. If someone asks me to look for something, I'm like a Beagle. I have to look for it until I find it. Max is more of a pit bull. For instance, when I said we might go on a bike ride after swimming and then I changed my mind and said, "Actually, maybe we'll wait till later, after dad comes home," he said, "no." Nonstop. He's still saying no, asking if we can go now, while following me around as I look for Legos.  Last night, when we asked him if he was ready for school, he said, "No." He said, "Actually, I'm not going to live here anymore." When we asked him where he was going, he said "I am moving to Mexico."

2. I love Zoe's friends. But playdates. I don't love. The kids do not see me. They don't talk to me. If I walk down the hallway and one of them is running down the hallway, they look at me like, hey, what're you doing here? They're polite enough and answer questions if I ask them, but only once in awhile do they engage me in conversation. Usually, it's to ask for juice. The normal rhythms of the house are: everyone in the separate corners for five minutes, then the three of us in the kitchen or living room or car for thirty, then back to our own corners, then back together. A fine orbital system. When the friends are here, there are gravities tipping the balance in all directions. They slam doors. Open doors. Run down the hallway. Make some very large noises. I think it's a matter of tolerance. If they were here every day, I'd get used to it. I'd be able to yell, "don't run down the hallway" without feeling like I was chastising a stranger*. I'd be able to tell them to get their own juice. Still, they are very friendly humans and sometimes they play with Max which allows me to go to my own separate corner. 

3. Richard Power's Orfeo might be the best book I've ever read. When I'm reading a passage at night, I think, I should write that down. But then I'd have to type the whole book. I love that Powers already won the MacArthur. And that he still writes. Not trying to impress anyone. Not afraid of someone going, 'well, I don't know who thought this guy was a genius.' Just trying to make a new story. There is something genius about someone who can make a whole book about music and a whole symphony about a book. The way Peter Els wants so hard to be a genius and, maybe was, but then couldn't be. It makes me sad how little I know about music. For instance, this means nothing o me: "A second cello harmonizes the first in simple fifths and thirds." I can imagine what that might look like on the piano but I have no idea how it sounds. I want to listen to Mahler and Soshtakovich and read the book again. But the way Powers talks about studying and studying and still never quite getting the heart of the thing makes me feel that even MacArthur winners feel like the true art of the world evades them. 

* Chastising Strangers might be the name of my next book. 

Monday, August 04, 2014


1. "Can you go entertain yourself for just a minute?" "Don't even worry about it. No one else will ever remember you knocked on the door of the wrong house." "Should I call the principal and get your class assignment changed?" "Go away. I'm trying to write my blog post."  These are the sayings that I thought I would never say. Oh, infinite patience and creativity. Did I use you up on my writing or on my children? Infinity is so much more countable in the summer.

2. Yesterday, while I somewhat bewept my outcast state, I realized after I wrote that I owe a bunch of people emails too. The pressure is somewhat off on all of us would-be correspondents, no?--and since everyone is on vacation every other week, I think you have to multiply by twelve the number of days of expected response. So if someone said, I'll be back to you in two weeks, what they really mean is in 168 days which is also coming up very quickly. Right? That's what I tell myself.

3. Zoe and Max are getting ready to start school on Thursday. Zoe has a new stapler. She will be the hit of the town. Everybody wants to borrow a stapler although this is what happens when you spill the staples all over the floor.

Max has Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirt and backpack and lunchbox. We have folders and pencils and mechanical pencils and sharpies and I actually bought some Post-Its. While I'm saying things like "Can you go entertain yourself for just a minute," I'm reading the Best American Essays 2013 and pairing with an excursion out of town so the students can immerse themselves and I hope they don't just immerse themselves in trauma. I am reading an excellent manuscript of poems that is beautiful with gods and gangsters and geometries and phrases like this: "set with cuttlefish pounce." I just got a book in the mail to review. I'm going to make dinner tonight even if it kills me. Zoe will get over not being in her best friend's class and the fact she knocked on the wrong door, trying to give her friend a thank you card. And school will start and it will be fine. This picture says so.