Saturday, October 03, 2015

After Umpqua--Letter #62

Dear Governor Ducey,

I’m not entirely sure what your stance on gun control and the NRA is, but, since you side with the rightiest right on public education (we should get rid of it) and private incarceration (we should do more of it), I assume you believe that the second amendment guarantees your individual right to have as many guns as you can get, no matter what you want to do with them. Although that reading of the Second Amendment is much disputed (and can be further disputed, get to work, we non-righty rights), that reading is how you wrap yourself up in your beliefs when another school shooting happens and say things like Jeb Bush said, “stuff happens.” Shrug your shoulders. Pet your gun.

In Mockingjay, the third film based on The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, the president of District 13 and the leader of the rebellion against the capital, notes that freedom comes with a price. We see citizens of other districts pay that price. Loggers, taken to their cutting trees by security forces start to run. The forces shoot at them.  Many die but many other climb into the treetops to escape the landmines that kill the capital’s security guards. In District 5, men and women carry explosives in large wooden boxes toward men guarding a hydroelectric dam. When the guards kill the men on the front lines and drop the box, the people behind pick up the box. They charge the guards, make it inside the doors. The people run out. The bombs go off. The dam breaks. The capital loses power. The revolution gains traction.

The Hunger Games is a distinctly American movie. Revolution is all to the good. It’s the Revolutionary War kind of revolution, not the Cultural Revolution or the Russian Revolution, where we remember the right-deprived, the starving, the dead. The Revolutionary War was the revolution that worked out, in our self-congratulating cultural memory, in the end, happy for everyone, even those who died battering down dams or standing up to the king’s redcoats.

Gun advocates wrap themselves in this belief: that freedom comes with a price. It doesn’t matter who pays it, even if it’s a six-year old in kindergarten, a six-year old at the wrong end of his brother’s playacting, a six-year old at the movie theater, a six-year old wondering what this dark, metal tunnel is that weighs so much in his hand. Six year olds like to push buttons and a trigger is just a more effective button.

When the dam breaks in Mockingjay, I tear up. YES! We must fight.

One of the subtle elements of Mockingjay is that everyone uses propaganda. Even the ‘good guys.’ Even the filmmaker. I am crying for a revolution that does not even exist. Set ‘freedom’ to music. 

But, I would like to ask the gun-must-havers, what revolution are you fighting? The revolutionary war was over long ago. The redcoats went back to England. A revolution requires two things: an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ We are a country. We are only an ‘us.’ The only ‘them’ is the six-year old that didn’t know he was a solider in a war that doesn’t exist.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Letter #61--Julia Child

Dear Governor Ducey,

Julia Child never said ‘no.’ If you called her to ask her for a recipe, she’d recite it for you, clarifying what she meant by medium heat and the size of pinch of salt. If you lived close enough, she might come over to help you make it.  If you asked her if your second cousin could join the dinner party she was hosting, she said yes. If you asked her to appear on your radio show, she said yes. Your TV Show. Blurb your cookbook. Bring the dessert, she said yes, yes, yes.

I admit I was getting a feeling a little overtaxed and begrudging about the conference I’m hosting in October during my sabbatical last semester. I really did not want to send emails about tote bags or find out NAU takes 8% off all funds raised while I was supposed to be researching and writing a new and exciting book. Zoe has a friend whose parents took both their kids to spend their sabbatical year in New Zealand. As I called the conference center to see if I could reserve a projector for a panel, I felt like I had failed sabbatical.

But sabbaticals can’t be failure. So few people get such a thing. I am lucky I even had a sabbatical to call mine. There is no way I could have pulled off the conference with my regular teaching and admin role.
So I decided to be Julia Child. I decided to say yes and to chuckle a big belly Julia Child laugh when I got emails about the budget numbers and how we might not be able to pull off the hosting the event at the conference center. Instead of having a panic attic wondering how I’d remember all these things, if someone wanted a projector, I said ‘Yes’ and put it on a list in Google Drive. If someone wanted to host an offsite event. Yes. If someone wanted an easel or a walking microphone. Yes, happy, yes, if someone wanted to change the time and date of their panel, yes, because no one forced me to host this conference, and really, instead of staring at my email box and getting nothing, now I get emails about how the conference attendees can offer their books at the conference. I found a new bookstore with the coming-guests. Now I have a bookstore owning friend and some friends with books to sell.  It got easier instead of harder. Saying yes, although we are cautioned, as young, female faculty that we will be asked to do too much and that it is in our nature to say yes so we should instead say no, it still got easier. It’s so much more work to say ‘no,’ especially when all you need to say ‘yes’ is to play a short You Tube of Julia Child grinding pepper and access to Google Drive.

Today was a great Julia Child kind of day. I made a list of acknowledgments, which made me feel grateful. I made a spreadsheet on G-drive that volunteers could access and sign up for what events they could cover. That made me feel tech-clever and also grateful to the volunteers. I sent a list of keynote speaker books to order from the bookstore which made me feel in awe of our guests writers and grateful to the bookstore to handle this part for me. I called the hotel to see how many rooms we had left in our block. I emailed the conference center to see where panelists could pick up their box lunches.  I emailed my co-coordinator who emailed me back to say, how else can I help? And, she too, said, “this is going to be fun” and she and I will be glad we said yes together when we do this thing five weeks from yesterday and in five weeks from Sunday when it’s all over. I added up registrants and sponsors. I connected the off-site event organizers with the offsite manager and made a page of offsite events for the program. Onsite events and offsite events. There are 3.5 days of nonstop events. So many people are coming to support us. 400 participants. Grateful? Yes. I emailed presses about the book fair to make sure they were on track. I checked the map my students made (thanks, Sonya Huber!) of Flagstaff which has been, for me, the most fun part of all this yes saying. There’s a lot of stuff to do when you say yes but also a lot of stuff to add to the available universe and there is evidence of all this work on the Google drive if not at the bookstore in book form.

Today, ABOR met to discuss the future. There was much glad-handing and approval. The good university president’s got bonuses. They approved programs and deleted programs. They probably did not proofread programs but I guess they also asked the state to restore university funding which makes me think that yes (and Google Drive) are good things and that I think you would make an excellent Julia Child.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Puente de Hozho Visit--Letter #60

Dear Governor Ducey,

Today you visit my daughter's school. I would like to pretend it is because I am a gadfly in the ointment of your governorship, but I presume it is really because the principal at Puente was invited to the White House to speak about bilingual education. It may also because you made some comments about English as the official language or that bilingual schools are communist plots and now you feel badly and want to made amends. Each of those are nice ideas. I have to admit, I haven't been paying as much as attention to your governorship as I was right after the budget cuts. Maybe because if I stay quiet, you'll restore higher education budgets. Maybe because it was summer and no one was talking about schools. Maybe because one-sided conversations get old.

Either way, today you are big in my mind because you are going to my kids' school today to do your politics. I tried to convince my daughter Zoe, whose fifth grade class you are visiting, to ask you some hard-hitting questions, like why do you hate education, or why do you like prisons more than schools, or why do you hate us, Mr. Ducey? She just laughed at me and said "oh, mommy" like she did when I suggested we walk around the new Sportsman's Warehouse and run into people wearing camouflage and saying, "Oh, sorry. I didn't see you." Zoe's career as a guerrilla* activist/fool is not yet underway.

I wanted to come see you at the school since I haven't seen you since NAU's president installation, but I do not think I was invited. I imagine there will not be a lot of political protesters there. I don't think you'll take a lot of questions. I will have to wait until after band practice to find out how it went.

My hope is that you see what an excellent school this is. My hope is that you notice that the Spanish speaking kids and the English speaking kids and the Navajo kids are learning so fast and so much from each other. My son, Max, is starting Kindergarten. He has homework. Zoe has to read the homework to him because Kindergarten homework is already taxing my and Erik college-level Spanish. They say that bilingual education isn't just good for teaching people to speak many languages. Like learning math and music, it creates pathways in the brain that wouldn't be paved otherwise, leading to innovative thinking and creative problem solving and other business-buzzwords that business-as-best-model people like to use. The thinking is that bilingual students succeed in multiple arenas like math and science because they have already begun to learn to see problems as opportunities of translation and interpretation. Bilingual education has a spill-over effect.

Higher eduction has a spill over effect too. Today, in the New York Times, Adam Davidson write,
Higher education is a fascinating, complex business. Its pricing dynamics ripple throughout the rest of our economy, in effect determining who will thrive and who will fail. What’s more, the product of this particular industry is not just an end in itself. Education can have enormous personal benefits for those who acquire it, but it also has external benefits to the rest of society. Education exerts something of a multiplier effect; it transforms not only the lives of the educated but of those around them as well. Workers with more education are more productive, which makes companies more profitable and the overall economy grow faster. There are also significant noneconomic benefits. Educated populations tend to be healthier, more stable and more engaged in their civic institutions and democratic debate.
As the effects of learning Spanish spill beyond the direct benefit of speaking a second language, the effect on the well-being of the state go beyond the direct benefit of educating an individual. 

The economic thinking behind public-university cuts can be confusing. Studies have shown that cutting support for public education balances budgets only in the short term. In his book ‘‘Higher Learning, Greater Good,’’ Walter W. McMahon, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Illinois, showed that a postsecondary degree has a return on investment of roughly 15 percent a year, meaning that every $100 invested in education brings an additional $15 in income for every year of a person’s working life. This expands a state’s economy and generates enough tax revenue to more than pay back the initial outlay on education. Someone who graduates from a four-year institution earns about $1 million in additional future earnings.
It IS confusing to think that the present-moment education budget numbers do not translate to future beneficial spill over effects to you. You seem to be able to do that kind of math when you consider cutting taxes for business incentives: "If we cut taxes for them now, they will add money into our economy later." Why "if we put money into their education now, that person will repay us in tax revenue later" doesn't register into your calculus makes me question your accounting skills. Maybe if you had had the benefit of a bilingual education, you would be more successful with math.

*Side note--Usefulness of higher ed: Once, I had a student in a composition class write about the Sandanistas. I could tell she didn't do much research. She spelled "guerrilla" "gorilla." I'd like to think I helped make a difference in her life. Or at least her spelling.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Letter #59--Faculty Annual Activity Report

Dear Governor Ducey,

I’m not sure you’re familiar with the FAAR. It’s short for Faculty Annual Activity Report. Each year, college faculty complete a report on what they’ve done for the last two semesters. These used to be reports compiled into very large binders but most universities, I think, have gravitated to an online system. NAU has been using it for a few years now. I like it because I am not so good at copying paper or at three-hole punching, which is one of the demands of the old binder system.

In the new system, you upload the classes you’ve taught, the evaluations. You include your committee work and institutional work and any grants and publications. This itemized list also provides a chance to reflect on how you’ve succeeded and what you might do differently for the coming year.

Last semester, as you know, I was on sabbatical but in Fall 2014, I was not. I taught two classes and directed the MFA program. It was a very busy year. We had four guest writers last fall. David Carlin and Robin Hemley, with whom I’m chairing NonfictioNOW came to read and to help plan the conference. Their reading was a great success—students were familiar with Robin’s work—we read his literary guide on immersion writing in my nonfiction class— but not David Carlin, who teaches and writes in Melbourne. His stories were sad and funny and his new book, The Abyssinian Contortionist, is about a woman acrobat emigrating from Ethiopia. I felt lucky to introduce students to a well-known American writer as well as an exciting global one. Later that semester, I hosted Melanie Bishop whose YA novel had just been published. Students are very interested in writing young adult novels, and even young adult nonfiction, so her visit was incredibly welcome. Meg Files read and invited students up on the stage to read with her, making the stage less ominous-seeming and their work more professional-sounding.

My classes went well. I just looked at the number of words I wrote in response to grad student work. 45 single-spaced pages, one for each essay students turned in. I had 15 students in my grad class, which is 3 more than is recommended by the Associated Writing Program best-practices guidelines, but isn’t the 18 it sometimes can be, so I am grateful. In student evals, they were grateful to write so much but I think 3 essays per student may be too much both for students and for the classroom—we had to set a timer to make sure everyone got exactly 20 minutes per essay. As I begin to work on this coming semester’s syllabus, I may ask for only 2 essays, plus a more critical paper about structure and voice. I should work on that instead of this!

In my undergrad class evals, I got good comments—my favorite being “This was the best class I’ve taken,” which is always my favorite comment. I had one detractor who said we read too many other stories and that I didn’t explain difficult concepts well. I tried to explain difficult concepts well through the use of already-published essays but it is possible I need to slow down and define terms more often. I’ll work on that.

The Lit Mag, Thin Air, for which I am the faculty advisor, did a ton of great work last year. They made a calendar, hosted a fundraiser at Karma, included local writers in the newest issue and made big waves at AWP—big names published. We increased donations, subscriptions, and general funding by a factor of two. Sadly, we were not one of the two projects chosen to apply by our university to apply for arts council funding again because we asked for too little money and spreading the word about NAU and Thin Air at the biggest writers conference in the world was deemed to have “insufficient impact.” Still, I will look for other grants for the mag this year.

This is getting boring so I’ll try to be quick in my final analysis. For my sabbatical, I wrote and finished the “sustainability” manuscript. I applied for two grants to support finishing them. Didn’t get them. I published a bunch of essays online: The Rumpus, Hobart, Full Grown People, Sundog Lit (thanks, Jill), and Better: Culture and Lit. I had a big essay come out in Witness, which is one of my dream mags and another of my dream mags, Black Warrior Review, published “Distracted Parents of the Micromanagement Era” as a chapbook. I made a new category on my CV. I also published in Orion, which is my dreamiest dream. It was just a short essay but it’s about bees so it counts.

For most of my sabbatical, I worked on the conference. I’ll write more about that soon. Let’s just say, there is about an email per hour about the conference. I spent this morning looking at Tote Bags. I am very close to people who work in NAU’s IT and Ebiz department. I have to pick some hors d’ouevres soon. That will be fun.

Even though I was on sabbatical, I hosted a few guest writers—Cynthia Hogue and Karen Brennan—who were excellent guests and spent time talking to students after their reading about exploding traditional forms and wrote a poem for the president’s installation. I wrote the final reports for grants which is a lot like writing a FAAR report for the year in support. I also wrote some new grants since even though I was on sabbatical, the grant funding places were not—and now we can have guest writers again.  Thanks ACA and FAC! I joined the Northern Arizona Book Festival board and I taught at Pima’s Writer’s Workshop and visited Murray State in Kentucky.

I revised a lot of books. I also started a new one. There’s really no place to put this in-progress work on the FAAR Faculty 180 page but since I imagine you’re counting words per minute as a sign of my worthiness to take some start dollars for my salary, I thought I should post word counts here:
Semi-permeable (novel revision)—added 13,000 words (probably deleted as many).
New essay, forthcoming in Barrelhouse: revolution—3600 words
Published in Full Grown People: You Never Know Just How You Look in Other Peopl’s Eyes (sorry if you have the song in your head now)—2000 words
Action for Sustainability—2000 words
Whales for Sustainability—4400 words
Wolves for Sustainability—2500 words
New project--Eggs: 19,000 total
More new project--Better Lettuce--3000
More new project--Nice Eggs—8000
More new project--Why we break Things—3700
More new project--Better—500
Buzzfeed quizzes (I didn’t just take them! I wrote about them)—1500
Mohawk  new project—500
Smile new projet—1000
Glomski Log (film logging for Micro-film. Way hard)-4000 words
Letters to the governor—38500 words

Old novel: Quicksand 83,200
New YA Novel: Hard Rain: 64,074 (but not all the way done with this one).

My goals were to revise Microcosm, Salmon (which has a new title: Processed Meats!), Quicksand, Semi-permeable, and Hard Rain and to finish the Microfilm movie. The movie is hard. I had some serious near successes with each of these books—especially, Quicksand (almost) and Microcosm (almost). Horseshoes is not quite what we’re playing but there’s some feeling of forward motion.

I don’t know if other state employees upload evidence of the work they’ve done for the year or if they must provide links to work they’ve published or to evaluations from their “clients” or “customers.” I don’t know if writing this report instead of drafting an essay or working on my syllabus or writing a grant is something other employees do, but I’m glad you find it meaningful and that you now have a greater sense of where tax dollars go.  I’m sure this report, if not the work I do, is money well spent.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Letter #58--True Detective and Revision

Dear Governor Ducey,
In Letter #56, I wrote about changing your mind.  Oh, would that all writing be so available for recall as a letter I wrote four days ago. I was thinking last night that really, to write a novel, you have to write it all in one day or you forget what you were doing and, if you take a break of three days or three weeks or three months, you have only the vestiges of your idea—like smoke trailing after a fire. You try to pin it back down but, especially in novels where the fire itself isn’t a straightforward plot and the characters are but wet wood, promising love but requiring special stoking, the smoke drifts this way and that you and chase it but you cannot quite grasp the original trajectory and you look mostly like an idiot, running across the forest, trying to make the smoke stay in one god-damn place for five seconds. Then you get mad at your idea and yourself for being so stupid as to create such an ephemeral and disobedient substance as fire/smoke.

True Detectives season 2 was universally reviled but now that it is over and one can see it in retrospect, there was one cool moment in the middle of the season when Ray (Colin Ferrell) was first pretend-killed (shot with pellet gun) and he dreamt about his father. This dream-speaking-father predicts Ray’s actual death. The image of him running through the forest. The statement, you are not fast enough. The final fact: “They will shoot you to pieces.”

This is what you want in a story: a story tucked within a story, each sentence telling a miniature version of that story within the larger story. In True Detectives, the story within the story, the foreshadowing metaphor, was blatant in hindsight. Probably too obvious. One would like to be a little subtler. But the ingredients for success are there—sadly, the fact that it was impossible to like or care about any of the characters crushed that chance for success. When you’re revising, you see glimmers of what you thought you might have been up to—the story within the story—but if you walk away from the fire too long, and the end of the book doesn’t follow the original trajectory because of the ways of wafting smoke, those stories stick out like sore thumbs. Or the only good thumb in a generally bad hand, as True Detectives went. Still, you can see it, in retrospect, this nugget of a story tucked within the larger story which at least gives the show some sense of artfulness.

One of the hardest things about teaching the art of writing is the lack of time we have in a semester. It has taken me years to figure this out—that you have to be fast fast fast to lay down the fire and to catch the smoke. Then, you have to put it away and forget the book entirely so you can see if indeed the smoke and fire are smoke and fire and not, instead, peanut butter and jelly or, worse, things that don’t go together, pickles and coconut. In a semester, you might be able to write a whole book but you certainly can’t revise it. Not everyone in your class would have the time to read 18 books—18 being the number of students our workshops generally have. And, no matter how much response you get from your professor or your colleagues, you, writer, won’t have time to forget the book—which you have to do if you want to be sure the thing you’re tracing is actual smoke and not just the hot air of what you imagined you thought you had written but in fact, had not. It would be cool if we had a program where in the first semester, you wrote a book and then, 4 or 5 semesters, you returned to it. What difference a distance of 3 years would make.

The point of sabbatical is a bit of this. To take a break from teaching so you can re-see how to do it. And, while you’re breaking, you’re back to all those books you needed to revise. You re-see them too. They’re a mess maybe. My first novel, I just revised. It’s better now. Maybe still not good enough, but better. My second novel, I can see it is natively better than the first. Still needs a lot of help. My third novel. Well, maybe it’s a revision of the first. Maybe it was stronger right off the bat, now that I had practiced noveling 3 times.  Or, maybe, it needs another 5 years to smolder.

Not everyone gets a chance to take a full on break to revisit the fires they’ve made but I do think summer functions as a kind of break for most everyone to some degree. The heat or the rain linger and your vacation or the fact that everyone else is on vacation means that work slows down. The earth shifts toward the sun. The light looks different. The sunset, even if you wanted to avoid its unworldly light, is unavoidable. Your kids are home. TV is boring. You have to go outside. You step out without shoes. The ground is hot. You think, what kind of fire is this? You check for smoke. Depending on the wildfire season, it’s either real or its not. You try to pin it down. You wait for fall. You tell your students, write fast, revise often. You wonder, governor, can you see it differently now?