Monday, April 20, 2015

The World’s Most Expensive Tomato, redux or, Yet another Metaphor for Education letter #43


Dear Governor Ducey,

It took me a year to convince him but finally Erik decided it was a good idea to build a garden box. We live in Flagstaff where the dirt is made out of rocks and volcanoes and where the deer, if you manage to get a green plant to grow out of your volcano, eat the fruits of that green plant. So Erik is building a garden box with a mesh fence and a door and it’s very made out of redwood which, though sustainably harvested, probably cuts into the do-goodingness of growing your own vegetables. Plus, I’m still remembering the guy on that Podcast I told you about, the one by Scott Carrier about the end of the world, and how you need an acre to feed a family of four and anyway, as the food supplies run out, you’ll also need a gun, this box is only five feet by ten feet and although I’m not a farmer, I’m pretty sure 50 square feet is not an acre.

Still. The box is very attractive and I have high hopes to plant peas and swiss chard, tomatoes and carrots. Maybe some spinach. Potatoes? I don’t know. It’s Flagstaff and therefore cold at night until May and sometimes it snows in July but with global warming, I think I might be able to pull a tomato out of this imported dirt.

This imported dirt is different dirt than the rock dirt. This dirt we bought from the store. It’s organic and smells like shit, purposefully. It cost $7 for 3 cubic feet of dirt. We need 33 bags of it. The garden box is 2 feet tall (100 cubic feet in the end. We need 33 bags of dirt for a total of $231. The sustainably grown redwood costs $10 a plank. We bought 24 of them. $240. 4 four by fours at $15 each=$60. Wire mesh: $28.47. Hinges: I don’t know. Erik’s still at the store buying those. The box costs about $560 which is more than the swing set we bought which is also made out of sustainably harvested redwood and from which I still have some stain in my hair to match the new stain in my hair from staining the garden box. We haven’t bought the seeds yet although at this rate, we’ll have to buy starter plants since the season is getting late.


Still, it seems worth it, this planting plan. It wasn’t super cheap but it didn’t cost as much as a car or a house and every year we should get some of our money back by not buying all our vegetables at the store. In the cost benefit analysis, putting some money in at the beginning, you reap the benefits for the rest of your days. If I could make explicit the metaphor then: state-supported tomatoes versus unimproved dirt. You cannot eat dirt. You cannot improve an economy without education.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

I'd prefer not to--Letter #42

Dear Governor Ducey,
This time, I’m asking you for some advice. It’s almost the end of my sabbatical. I wake up depressed and I can’t tell if it’s because I didn’t get as much as I wanted to done or if I’m dreading going back to the busywork that occupies a good percentage of my job. I’m looking forward to going back to my students because I like to teach, plus they offer some ballast to the unwieldy world of wondering if all your work is pointless or not—their very presence makes me believe that something valuable exists in what I do.
And yet, after sabbatical, it seems like I might be better able, having had time to evaluate and think through priorities, to say no to certain projects, yes to ones that are necessary and seem valuable, to choose better, overall, how I spend my time. B

But these letters, like the book of poems I revise, and the novel I reconsider, and the new nonfiction project, if weighed against the dollars that come in to your campaign headquarters to say, much more loudly, “no” to everything I really do think is important, should I keep writing them? The party of “no.” Sometimes, no just does sound better. It’s a lot easier than writing pages and pages on student work which is still way better than writing pages and pages of learning outcomes to prove to the state that I’m not doing nothing.


So should I write another letter? Yes, I guess I should. A sabbatical is a kind of break, but it’s also a kind of void. A black hole. A perpetual no. And in a lot of ways, I would like to be lazy. To just quit. But I will go back to work (just did some work—emailed a student--to spite the no) and I'll write one more letter because yes is the only antidote to no.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Deleted--Letter #41

Dear Governor Ducey,
I took a couple of days off writing letters when I received an email from the Arizona Commission on the Arts saying that because the state had cut all funding to the Commission, they wouldn’t be able to give as many grants as usual and the competition for the ones they could give would be incredibly stiff. For the past three years, I’ve applied for funding from the ACA to invite guest writers from across mostly Arizona but also the rest of the country to come speak to our classes and to give readings as part of the Narrow Chimney reading series. The number of faculty in our MFA program is few and we think (thought) it is important for us to supplement our students’ experience by bringing a wide variety of writers to town.
But, that’s not looking so feasible for next year. The budget cut that bites doubly. Our class caps have been raised. Our loads are being scrutinized. We will be asked to do more, with less, again and then we will be asked to do less with less because the ACA’s budget line has been obliterated. No more readings for students. Class caps higher than any best practices document can support. But it’s all right, right? It’s just art? Who needs art?
That’s why I didn’t write, because when someone deletes something that is important to you, sometimes silence is all you can say. But silence is what you want. That’s what the deletion meant. Stop making art. Stop bringing art to your students. Stop pretending art is worth money. When you prohibited cities from banning plastic bags from stores, I thought a good protest would be for all of us to come to Phoenix and protest by putting plastic bags over our heads but I expect your response might be, “pull the handles tighter.”
I’m not going to waste my breath here (maybe later) to argue how art is valuable. Like the oxygen in a plastic bag, my arguments will be quickly inhaled and rebutted with an exhausted “no. Not listening.”
So. Instead of suffocating in a plastic bag of “art is good,” I just thought I’d list some of the artful successes of the writing students have had lately:

One student got into NYU’s MFA program.
One student had an essay published in Arts and Letters issue 30.
Another student had a review published in New Found and a ghazal called Sandhill in the Journal of Contemporary Ghazals.
Another student has a story forthcoming in Curios.
Two former students together published the first Narrow Chimney Reader
They also won a Viola Award for the Narrow Chimney Reading Series.
They also are bringing back the Northern Arizona Book Festival.
One of those two had a poem titled Retired Speedfreak Chopper Rider published in the Spring 2015 edition of Ray's Road Review.
One student will appear in the film 'Durant's Never Closes' opposite Tom Sizemore 
One student has a poem forthcoming in 3 Elements.

That’s just what I got from a quick, “tell me your good news” email I sent this morning. Maybe there will be more news later. My students aren’t so good with silence.


Monday, April 13, 2015

A Bottle of Education, Please--Letter #40

Dear Governor Ducey,

I feel like there’s a sense that the universities are somehow making you mad. The way you said, “"I urge you to approach this endeavor in a businesslike fashion when considering whether to raise price. Price and value matter in business. Making a quality product that fewer can afford does not often make sense" to the board of regents makes me think that the university’s product is education. Like resolve and patience and claustrophobia, we should bottle this substance. As a product, it should be easy to fill up the students’ minds with our delicious, good smelling education. Brand ASU, U of A, NAU, each a slightly different flavor. $10,000 a year gets you a bottle of this fine stuff. And, as you say, it’s really only worth what people are willing to pay for it. And, to you, it’s not worth much. Arizona has cut universities budgets more than any place in the country and yet somehow, you seem surprised when we’re not ranking so high on any of the charts. Maybe we need new labels on our bottles. Or new caps. Or possibly bottles.
Maybe we should just stop trying, as you have obviously stopped caring. We could turn the universities into great breweries. Everyone likes beer. We can sit on the lawn and drink beer. In the union and drink beer. The swimming pools can be filled with beer. We can bottle beer in the science labs.

The only problem I see is that unlike education, once your beer is gone, it’s gone. Education is this strangely uncontainable product. It grows exponentially. Kind of like a chia pet. You can share it without giving up any of your own. Once you have a little, you can make some more. In some ways, it’s a poor product because no one owns it. You can invest in it for yourself but everyone benefits from it. In fact, it’s almost so much not like a product, that perhaps a university can’t be run exactly like a business.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Us Fish Must Swim Together--Letter #39


Dear Governor Ducey, 
One good thing. What would you say, if, on your death bed, what was the one good thing you did? As a pretend, doctor, I say, “first do no harm.” The less you do, generally, it seems the better the fellow human and our fellow species seem to go. But if you could do one thing, for one person, for me, it would be to give them an education. Kindergarten through college. One kid in Kenya. One kid in India. One kid in Ohio. One kid in Arizona. It doesn’t matter where because a whole life of solid education through college would change so much, for any of those kids. To go to school. To play at math. To read books. To make a game where oxygens become miraculously separated from hydrogens. Hey, where did my hot water go? To realize calculus was mostly a matter of turning the numbers and triangles you already know on their sides. To read Old Man in the Sea with everyone that you ride the bus with. To believe the fish is only one metaphor. To believe the whale in Moby Dick is only another. To understand that seas and men with a single-minded idea mean that 200 or 600 or 800 pages later means that know you know something about the purpose of tattoos. That you take the tattoo knowledge to college and you smash it against Plato, Ulysses and chemistry isn’t even organic. You make a collage on the front lawn. You haul a swimming pool up to the roof and call it a hot tub. You learn that everyone has to speak up if they want to be heard. You learn to sit and listen sometimes too. And you figure out that it’s in the classroom that a microcosm of the good life occurs—where you can listen and innovate and plan and imagine and disagree and come to some sort of compromise that says, this is one good thing I did with my life: I went to school. And then I sent someone else there. Think of the numbers of people you as one man can send. One man and big sea of college-going fish. You can send them forward or you can let them sink. Fish fish fish fish fish.