Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When It’s All About Me

I don’t think I have a split personality; but if I did, would I know it?  Maybe it’s just the neighbor’s marijuana wafting in through the swamp cooler on a hot day, or maybe I really am two people living in one body.

There is the confident me and the fragile me, the gregarious me and the shy me, the funny me and the me that wants to curl up in a ball because of the pain.  There is the performer me and the wallflower me, the erudite me and the stupid me, the me I see and the me everyone else sees.
Some people think they know me.  I can carry on a conversation and appear knowledgeable on many subjects.  They see me as a good listener . . . well, except when I just “need” to interject. I make eye contact.  I am sympathetic and chagrined at the appropriate times.  They think I am confident, capable, and sure because I hold myself erect and use my hands expressively like an Italian.  Since I have a degree of authority in some of their lives, they feel I am someone to please and seem relieved when I don’t blame them for their lack of organization or tardiness.   They laugh with me and know that when I cross my arms over my chest, it’s not because I am mean or defiant, but that I am holding my middle-aged stomach in.  They know that . . .  because I told them.  So they think I am transparent.  I look like I know what I’m doing as I sit behind my desk or stand at the front of a classroom, and they think I surely deserve the pay check I get at the end of the month.   
Other people think they know me because I share my innermost feelings in my songs and monologues.  I sing with passion and tap my feet in rhythm (well, almost).  They see me sit casually in a coffee house with my guitar or in an ornate concert hall on the bench in front of an enormous grand piano that reminds me of a black stretch limo; and they think they should give me a tape of the songs they wrote while singing in the shower because they think I could help them become famous.  They see my album covers and my press releases and wonder how it must feel to have followed my dreams and succeeded.   
Other people see the me that has gone through tragedy, that has lost her first baby girl; that has watched the broken body of her beautiful youngest son being cut out of his car with the jaws of life and medi-vaced away; that has sat alternately singing and crying at the bedside of her sweet daddy as for days and days he withered away, denied food and drink because it would supposedly only cause more pain.  People see the me that lost her singing voice, and then her career and her identity in one fell swoop.  They think I am strong, resilient, full of faith, and able to scale tall buildings at a single bound.  They think trouble has made me stronger and that I know all these things are “working together for good.”
But there is another me that I see:  There is a shy me that enters a room and skirts the edges uncomfortably till she finds someone she knows.  There is the me that thinks the qualification police are just around every corner ready to strip me of my “credentials” and expose my lack of ability and worthiness to an unsuspecting public.  There is the me that panics when a person I’m supposed to know enters my office, and I can’t remember her name or the details of his circumstance.  There is the me that screams inside when she is in a place she “belongs” and yet feels so incredibly useless and out of place.  The faithless me rises uncontrolled at times, shaming me for using God-words when I am doubting that He is good and thinking with so many planets to manage and prayers to hear He has lost my address.  A me I recognize wakes with memories of betrayal and rejection while surrounded by love and acceptance.  There is the me that is pseudo-happy with so many blessings, and who yet bleeds discontent.
I see both sides of me and wonder which one is real.  But it really is a both/and kind of existence, regardless of how I am perceived.  I am good and I am bad.  I am weak and I am strong.  I am happy and I am sad.  I am kind and I am mean.  But my comfort comes in borrowing what another broken one has written:  “God writes straight lines with crooked pens.” ~St. Ignatius.
Pressing on,
The Two of Us

Thursday, September 23, 2010

High School English Gone Green

This week, your assignment will be to write a three-page compare and contrast essay.  Typically, I have made this an open topic, but I have received as many dog and cat comparisons that I want to see in my lifetime; and by the way, dogs rule!
As a refresher:  A compare / contrast essay should compare two or more things.  You will be comparing the similarities and contrasting the differences.  This essay should not only inform the reader—that’s me—but should also evaluate the items you are using.  Give me specific, concrete examples to support your points.
As I mentioned, this is not an open topic.  As Americans, we share this North American continent with Canada and Mexico.  I want you to compare and contrast two aspects of the culture of each country.  That could be education, family life, religion, immigration, language, art, or politics, etc.  If you have any questions as to the appropriateness of what items to choose, please ask me.  Canadian rap has not really taken off, so it probably should be stroked off your list.
You may set up your document in either of the following ways:  subject by subject or point by point.
Subject by subject sample outline:
1.      Introduction
2.      Body:
A.      Canada:
i.                    Politics
ii.                  Language
B.      U.S.
i.                    Politics
ii.                  Language
C.      Mexico
i.                    Politics
ii.                  Language
3.      Conclusion
Point by Point sample outline:
1.      Introduction
2.      Body:
A.      Education
i.             Canada
              ii.           U.S.
iii.             Mexico
B.      Family Life
i.                    Canada
ii.                  U.S.
iii.                Mexico
3.      Conclusion
Choose whichever outline you prefer, but the point of this essay is not just to practice the compare / contrast format, but to think about what our neighboring cultures experience in day-to-day living, which might be a different or similar experience to your own. 
How many of you think that snow magically appears as soon as you cross the Canadian border?  And do you know the significance of Prince Edward Island?  Big hint:  It’s not just where Anne of Green Gables lives.  Does the 49th parallel sound in any way familiar to you; and no, it has nothing to do with gymnastics.  It has more to do with good fences making good neighbors.  Not all Canadians rub noses; not all Canadians ski or eat Canadian bacon; and, trust me, they are not all nice!  So what are they all about, these grand neighbors to the North?
How about our Southern neighbors?  How many of you feel that when speaking English to a Spanish-speaking person if you just talk a bit louder, you will make them understand?   Do you think as soon as you cross the border, Mexico is one hot desert?  You are mistaken:  That’s Palmdale!  Mexico has varied landscapes, including pine forests and snow at higher elevations.  When they get too much snow, they ship it to the Canadian border so it’s the first thing American tourists see.  Mexicans are not all drug dealers (Haven’t you watched Tony Soprano?); they don’t all have tortillas with Mother Mary’s face in it; they don’t all salsa dance; and most hear . . . perfectly . . . fine.  Take the time to find out who your neighbors are.
In order to write this essay and make it replete with concrete examples you will need to do some research.  Here are some notes about that:
·         Wikipedia is not considered an academic site.  If I see it on your Works Cited page, your paper just made the bottom of my bird cage.
·         If your site has anything in it about Bubba from Montana, it is probably not credible.  Save that for creative writing.  Instead, prefer sites with dot gov or dot edu at the end of the URL.
·         If you plagiarize your source, I will know it.  Even though I do not have, like the great community college down the street, Google is an amazing search engine.  If you plagiarize globally, as a patchwork, or incrementally, you just failed my course.  Come by my office; I have applications for Jack-in-the-Box.
·         There are other credible sources other than the Internet.  They are called books.
Plan ahead and as always submit your essay in MLA format.  I hope you enjoy this chance to study the other cultures that share your continent.  Next week, we will be starting the poetry section.  Extra credit is available for those successful in suppressing groans.
Class dismissed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hello, Junior High Class of ’10-’11:

First of all, spit your gum out, please.  I know it helps you cope with your ADHD, but a rule is a rule!  Not under the chair!  In the trash can, please!

Okay, let’s get down to business:  This is a writing class, and I expect everyone to give me their best effort; after all, I will be holding your grade hostage, and if you want to graduate and go on to high school you must accommodate my every writing whim.  Here are my top ten rules:

Rule #1:  All assignments must be written in MLA format.  I know it seems a bit OCD to be so picky about particular spaces, indentations, and headings, but c’est ce que c’est!  And if you don’t know what that means, you can sign up for French I next year.

Rule #2:  If I assign a personal essay you can I, I, I, I all over the place; but in every other formal essay, I don’t want to see personal pronouns.  I also don’t want to see contractions, text speak, or slang.  Be professional. 

Rule #3:  Open with a strong introduction:  a startling statistic, an anecdote, a quotation, or an applicable example.  Do not begin with a question unless you are famous.  And if you are famous, you can do what you want as long as you keep me on your Christmas list.  The last sentence of your introduction should state your thesis and preview your main supporting points.

Rule #4:  Don’t preach to me at the end, don’t give me a happy-sappy-ever-after ending, and don’t dribble away to nothing.  Re-state your thesis, but not in the exact same way; review your main points; and don’t introduce new material.  End with a strong declarative sentence with a general application that your reader can take away.  Don’t end stating your desire to work for world peace.  That’s been done and failed.

Rule #5:  Don’t use clichés or overused phrases.  If it sounds like a lyric to a song, it probably is.  Think of a fresh way to say what you want to say because some phrases are as old as the hills and leave me cold as ice!

Rule #6:  You are not Hemingway, so you don’t need to cut adjectives and adverbs to the bone, but think about every modifier you include.  Read your sentence with it and without it and see what incredibly illustrious form is best for your undying, world-changing purpose.  Get the idea?  The bulk of your text should be short words that you can dredge up from your childhood and not the fifty cent variety that you learned from skimming “Word Power” in your grandfather’s bathroom copy of Reader’s Digest.

Rule #7:  After you’re done writing your essay, stand in front of the mirror and read it out loud.  If you can’t stand it, I probably won’t like it either, so revise before your initial submission.

Rule #8:  If you are having trouble starting, cluster, brainstorm, or freewrite to get the ideas flowing.  If you are still stuck, write down all the things you thought you’d never tell anyone.  Write about who really broke your mom’s favorite lamp and about the time you set fire to your neighbor’s poodle.  Once you get a groove going, destroy the incriminating part or rewrite it and blame it on your brother.
Rule #9:  Use proper grammar and punctuation.  “Let’s eat, Grandma” is addressing Grandma; whereas, “Let’s eat Grandma” will put you in the Hall of Fame with the Donner Party.  So punctuate properly so the reader understands what in the world you mean.  And please, no run on stream-of-consciousness sentences.  This is not the 60s and drugs are illegal.

Rule #10:  Last, if I get an email at 11:00 p.m. the night before the assignment is due, asking what the assignment is, you get zero on principle alone.  Plan and execute your assignments plenty of time in advance because computers hate you and your dog is really waiting for that chance to eat your homework.  It tastes just like chicken.
I’m looking forward to a great year, and remember I can be bribed with coffee and chocolate!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dear Fictional Editor:

I was sipping my organic, free trade coffee, enjoying my break at work, listening to the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Sweden. I must say that it is a very impressive event, but I am chagrined that not only did Al Gore get one of their prestigious awards, but also he used the platform to once again evangelize for the global warming propaganda. I don’t think Gore is deliberately trying to deceive, at least I hope not; but it is frustrating to hear him present one view and one interpretation of the available statistics.

He had a well-written speech (whether he wrote it himself or not), and he is a fine orator if you get past the slight whine. He was passionate and presented his talking points like a pastor out to convert the unbelieving heathen. Sorry to say, I wasn’t converted.

Now I must say that I recycle; I avoid plastics; I use reusable grocery bags; and I don’t use toxic pesticides (well, maybe a little, but only when the AV ant count in my kitchen reaches 100 or more). I’m a health nut, and I really try to be a good steward of the earth. But some of the governmental, and hence societal changes, that Gore and his allies are calling for could be destructive to the economy of our Westernized nations while at the same time giving a pass to quasi-developing nations. And when there are disasters and help is needed, it is the “rich” benevolent West that runs to the aid of the underprivileged. And, yes, that is how it should be! But change must be incremental and done in such a way that livelihoods are not destroyed for the cause of an idea—an idea which is disputed and not unanimously held by all scientists everywhere.

I read a book called State of Fear by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame. Within his plot line, which is obviously fiction, he includes a plethora of factual information and graphs that show there is another way to interpret the “facts” bandied about. While Gore is showing a melting glacier in South America, a supposed result of global warming, on the other side of the same mountain range is a glacier that is growing. His dire assertions that the seas are rising and millions will die are contradicted by scientists who fail to see any change in the water levels on the Southern Hemisphere islands he references. For many of his talking points and dramatic photos in his movie, there are other photos and explanations that bring greater balance to the panic. But we hate to think of the cute polar bears suffering and heading to extinction. We see the graphic, so we buy the propaganda.

I had an aunt who was a history buff. She had news clippings dating back to the mid 1800s when at least two different years snow fell every month of the year back in Canada where I’m from. It was devastating because farmers couldn’t plant their crops. But it passed. It was a cycle. Much of what we are seeing is the same. When I was in college (the first time), we were freaked out about global cooling and overpopulation. The world was supposed to have ended by now! But please not before a latté refill. That is not to say we should sit and do nothing about pollution. We should, as a people, be constantly seeking ways to be good stewards of the earth and use technology in a more responsible and healthy way.

What concerns me, and I think someone at your paper ought to do some investigative reporting on this, is that it is profitable for certain entities to keep the panic button pressed. In Crichton’s book, he hypothesizes that since funding for these environmental agencies is dependent on there being a crisis, it is necessary to create a “state of fear” to keep the money flowing. Sometimes, we tend to think that environmentalists are all poor, tree hugging hippies with long beards, who eat tofu and meditate—one with the earth. But the environmental agencies created in the 50s and 60s are multimillion dollar corporations with huge budgets and they need our fear to stoke the fires and keep the cash flowing in.

Thanks for listening.
Tipper Gore

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Teacher Carried a Shotgun

My teacher for grades one through eight brought a “shotgun” to school every day. It contained a mysterious white powder and rested on her big, wooden desk at the ready. She appeared as a terrifying specter in my young life: demanding, critical, and sometimes physically abusive. In that one-room schoolhouse in the idyllic Canadian countryside, she towered. She was tough and unquestionably in control.

Whether it was sweeping the hardwood floors, printing, coloring in the lines, cleaning the fish tank, singing in the choir, nothing was ever good enough. She required perfection. I was not, however, a perfectionist and so I lived in terror of her criticism. I was one to find art in the process more than the outcome, and so my insecurities under her tutelage grew. I always felt inferior.

My supportive parents did much to soften the psychological blows on my sensitive nature, but one day some of that insecurity melted at school when Mrs. _______ announced to the whole class that I had written a wonderful spring poem. She had contacted the newspaper, and they were going to publish it; which in fact, they did. I can’t say all was completely rosy after that, but I realized that my gift with words was valuable, something worthy of even the tyrant’s praise. It was a turning point in my young life.

There were other defining moments. When I got to high school, I was intimidated by the much larger school. Walking the lunchtime gauntlet, being sized up by peers, was terrifying. My old insecurities and natural shyness kept me from really stepping out much and expressing myself creatively. I had a small group I was comfortable with, but taking risks was scary business. Then, I learned to play guitar. Suddenly, my songwriting was off and running, and you can sound really good with only a few chords. Best of all, I had something to do with my hands, and I had this big chunk of wood sitting on my lap to hide behind. And piano, even bigger! I re-created myself in the image of Lilly the Folksinger / Rock ‘n Roller. I was able to express myself, my fears, my faith, my humor, in ways that I was too inhibited to do before. The more praise I received, the more my confidence grew. The more my confidence grew, the more opportunities opened up for me. Being able to share what I had written, that part of my vulnerable self, gave me a sense of power, a sense of significance. And when others were moved, encouraged, or just simply grooved to my tunes, my old fears of inadequacy and inferiority started taking a back seat.

It makes me realize how important affirmation is. It’s easy to be critical, and I have to watch that in myself because I have a tendency to see flaws first. I look for things to fix. But my desire to “help” must be tempered with the awareness that, just like me, a fragile self is only waiting for the right encouragement to blossom.

By the way, Mrs. _______ really did love me and only wanted what was best for me as her student. I saw that later . . . much later! She had some pretty weird ways of showing it, but she was proud of me and was spurring me on to do well. And the shotgun? I realize now that what she called her “shotgun” was really an inhaler. She was asthmatic. So the big, bad tyrant had weaknesses after all.