Category Archives: Memoir

No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” – Part III

Right. So, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t live up to my end of the bargain at the end of my previous post. I haven’t completed any creative writing since then, but I did get through another round of edits on someone else’s super-fun paranormal romance and am taking on some additional freelance work writing/editing commercial documents and web content for a couple small businesses. Hey, it pays the bills. I do find myself in a peaceful sort of limbo today, though, that should allow me a chance to crack open manuscript #2 and crank on its final chapters. But first things first: in getting psyched and inspired to write by those who’ve already done it so well, it’s time to wrap up my little literary miniseries here with some final quotations from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

On peer critique:

He liked the works of his friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but can be disastrous as judgment.
from “Ezra Pound and the Measuring Worm”

We still went under the system, then, that praise to the face was open disgrace.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

That fall of 1925 [Scott Fitzgerald] was upset because I would not show him the manuscript of the first draft of The Sun Also Rises. I explained to him that it would mean nothing until I had gone over it and rewritten it and that I did not want to discuss it or show it to anyone first.
from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Every writer is different, but hopefully we all understand the value of actively soliciting constructive criticism of our work. That said, I totally share the reluctance Hemingway had when it comes to handing over an early draft, the desire to give yourself the opportunity to critique it first before letting other eyes judge what is surely not yet your best. There does come the time, though, to fork it over, and I’m still steeling myself for this step…I do know a select few friends whose loyalty wouldn’t impair their judgment; they would tell it to me straight without fear of hurting my feelings, which is fortunate and terrifying all at once as I endeavor to shape what I do into something truly good by any measure…but what defines good writing?

On good writing:

[Fitzgerald’s] talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think. He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good one in his life.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

He spoke slightingly but without bitterness of everything he had written, and I knew his new book must be very good for him to speak, without bitterness, of the faults of past books. He wanted me to read the new book, The Great Gatsby, as soon as he could get his last and only copy back from someone he had loaned it to. To hear him talk of it, you would never know how very good it was, except that he had the shyness about it that all non-conceited writers have when they have done something very fine, and I hoped he would get the book quickly so that I might read it.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. […] If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.
from “On Writing in the First Person”

Then I started to think in Lipp’s about when I had first been able to write a story after losing everything. […] It was a very simple story called “Out of Season” and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood. […] And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them. Oh sure, I thought, I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.
from “Hunger was Good Discipline”

I feel the strong need to emoticon that last one, but will do it here so it doesn’t look like Hemingway stooped to my level. Here it is: 🙂 I think that observation speaks (to an extent) to the debate in my first post in this series about writing to the market…I think sometimes you do have to throw the reader a bone and hand-hold just a little if you want them running along with you and cheering you on—rather than giving up on you because you’re trying to be a profound and abstract literary genius, sitting up there on-high in your little turret all alone but for the company of a story only you could love. 🙂 (There, I emoticoned again! It’s a modern disease!) But to continue…

In writing there are many secrets too. Nothing is ever lost no matter how it seems at the time and what is left out will always show and make the strength of what is left in. Some say that in writing you can never possess anything until you have given it away or, if you are in a hurry, you may have to throw it away. […] They say other things too but do not pay them too much attention. They are the secrets that we have that are made by alchemy and much is written about them by people who do not know the secrets or the alchemy. There are many more explainers now than there are good writers. You need much luck in addition to all other things and you do not always have it. This is regrettable but nothing to complain about as you should not complain of those explainers who tell you how you do it and why, if you do not agree with them. […] Good writing does not destroy easily…
from “Nada y Pues Nada”

I must say, I’m touched by Fitzgerald’s humility regarding The Great Gatsby, as well as the esteem he was held in by his contemporary Hemingway (even when other aspects of Fitzgerald’s life hardly impressed him). What a fascinating time to be a writer back then, when there was still uncharted territory—hell, when there was still un-agented submissions!—and classic American literature was given new voice. So many pioneering and influential artists, right there in Paris at the same time and toasting cocktails to one another…no wonder Woody Allen wanted to pay homage with his recent film Midnight in Paris. An era idealized in nostalgia? Sure. But there’s no questioning the contribution that those people at that time made to what so many of us continue to aspire to today; it was a recipe for greatness whether they knew it themselves yet or not…a wonderful alchemy of talent and ambition that not even the explainers can explain.

In closing:

“Hem, you won’t forget about the writing?”

“No,” I said. “I won’t forget about the writing.”

I went out to the telephone. No, I thought. I would not forget about the writing. That was what I was born to do and had done and would do again. Anything they said about them, the novels or the stories or about who wrote them was all right by me.

from “Nada y Pues Nada”

PART I

PART II

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No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” – Part II

Yikes, have I taken long enough to follow up on this? Busy days, folks, busy days, and I clearly lack Hemingway’s discipline…for writing anyway. His discipline seemed to stray when it came to women…

Right, moving on. I left off last time with commentary on how Hemingway’s autobiographical yet “fictional” book A Moveable Feast might have been called The Early Eye and The Ear had its author let himself live to see its publication. To continue:

The Early Eye and The Ear gets at the need to hone your craft, something Hemingway truly believed in and worked at all his life. It implies talent, for you must have a good eye and a good ear to begin with if you are to be successful, but it also suggests that you need experience to develop your abilities as a writer, and Paris at that time was for Ernest Hemingway the perfect place to do this.

Indeed, I imagine Paris isn’t too shabby a place to do it. Especially back then when being an expatriate really would have felt exotic as opposed to today’s globally minded society that shuffles the likes of us in and out the door with more frequency. Not that moving to London wasn’t a massive inspiration for me and my own writing, but I probably hear North American accents here as often as any, and the likes of Starbucks is everywhere (which I’m at peace with because I very specifically love their chai lattes and granola bars).

At any rate, any place is fitting for a writer—or human being in general—that can introduce you to new perspectives, cultures, aesthetics, interesting, worldly if not quirky people, and allow you to expand into a sense of self you might not have realized you could be back home. I’ve learned firsthand how moving away helps you see that home with sharper clarity; as Hemingway said, “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.” Let’s hear more of what he had to say about those days when he first endeavored to become a novelist…

On starting to write a novel:

I knew I must write a novel. But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel. It was necessary to write longer stories now as you would train for a longer race. When I had written a novel before, the one that had been lost in the bag stolen at the Gare de Lyon, I still had the lyric facility of boyhood that was as perishable and as deceptive as youth was. I knew it was probably a good thing that it was lost, but I knew too that I must write a novel. I would put it off though until I could not help doing it. I was damned if I would write one because it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly. When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice. Let the pressure build. In the meantime I would write a long story about whatever I knew best.
~ from “Hunger was Good Discipline”

Since I had started to break all my writing down and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

Now, as he alluded to in that first quotation, Hemingway had lost not only the entire manuscript of his first attempt at a novel but also the majority of anything else he had written, and he didn’t have any copies. He then went on to write The Sun Also Rises. Talk about rallying! That must have taken tremendous drive, patience, and discipline to simply sit down with pencil and notebook and start writing again. Fortunately, he was seated in the midst of life, buzzing around him with inspiration…

On writing from life:

In the early days writing in Paris I would invent not only from my own experience but from the experiences and knowledge of my friends and all the people I had known, or met since I could remember, who were not writers. I was very lucky always that my best friends were not writers and to have known many intelligent people who were articulate. In Italy when I was at the war there, for one thing that I had seen or that had happened to me, I knew many hundreds of things that had happened to other people who had been in the war in all of its phases. My own small experiences gave me a touchstone by which I could tell whether stories were true or false and being wounded was a password.
from “On Writing in the First Person”

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek. / I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere […]. The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. […] I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
from “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel”

So, it seems Hemingway had found a sweet spot in a café where his writing could flourish. I had to laugh, then (but with as much pity as humor), at his agitation when other people disrupted that peace…

On less-than-ideal writing conditions:

The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of café crèmes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed. […] Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake. A pencil-lead might break off in the conical nose of the pencil sharpener and you would […] sharpen the pencil carefully with the sharp blade and then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack strap to lift the pack again, get the other arm through and feel the weight settle on your back and feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake. / Then you would hear someone say, “Hi, Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?” / Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook. This was the worst thing that could happen. […] Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. There were other good cafés to work in but they were a long walk away and this was your home café. It was bad to be driven out of the Closerie des Lilas. You had to make a stand or move.
~ from “Birth of a New School”

It appears he made a stand. It wasn’t pretty. But he made his point. Then there’s that friendly chap F. Scott Fitzgerald, fellow member of the Parisian literati who invited Hemingway and his wife Hadley to join them in the French Riviera.

It was a nice villa and Scott had a very fine house not far away and I was very happy to see my wife who had the villa running beautifully, and our friends, and the single aperitif before lunch was very good and we had several more. That night there was a party to welcome us at the Casino […]. No one drank anything stronger than champagne and it was very gay and obviously a splendid place to write. There was going to be everything that a man needed to write except to be alone.
~ from “Hawks Do Not Share”

I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

Not that Ernest couldn’t whoop it up on his own terms, but, when he wore the writing hat, it was all about productivity.

On the discipline of writing:

I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when you had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.
~ from “Miss Stein Instructs”

And now that Hemingway has made me feel thoroughly guilty, it’s time to go get some work done. You should, too. Let’s say we write ourselves proud for a while and meet back here when I post the last installment of this series. Deal? Good. Now keep those eyes and ears open…

PART I

PART III


No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” on Writing – Part I

“It is not that things should be published. But I believe now that it is important that they exist.”

Ah, and that quotation wasn’t even Hemingway; it was his friend Evan Shipman. But I figured it made a good segue from my previous post about “When Not Being Published Doesn’t Feel Too  Shabby,” no? Who was Evan Shipman? Alas, perhaps if he hadn’t held the views on publishing he did, his name would be as household as Ernest Hemingway’s by now.

Evan Shipman, who was a very fine poet and who truly did not care if his poems were ever published, felt that it should remain a mystery.

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” he once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”
~ from “An Agent of Evil”

Ah, sustenance. Indeed. Well, it doesn’t seem  even the published can necessarily count on that anymore. But this is how F. Scott Fitzgerald did:

He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoreing. He said it was whoreing but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best they could write without destroying their talent. He said he had learned to write the stories for the Post so that they did him no harm at all. He wrote the real story first, he said, and the destruction and changing did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it but I needed a novel to back up my faith and to show him and convince him, and I had not yet written any such novel.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

[After Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby:]

I was trying to get him to write his stories as well as he could and not trick them to conform to any formula, as he had explained that he did.

“You’ve written a fine novel now,” I told him. “And you mustn’t write slop.”

“The novel isn’t selling,” he said. “I must write stories and they have to be stories that will sell.”

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

“I”m going to.” he said.
from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Hm, and did he? Was Scott a sell-out? Or was he just doing what he needed to do to make a livelihood of his craft? It raises the question that hits me time and again—to what extent do writers need to write to the market if they ever want to be published? Just at the start of their careers to get a foot in the door? Throughout their careers to keep earning a living? Is there a happy medium? And could writing to the market harm your writing if it’s any less than your best? Questions I don’t feel the need to answer at this time. (But see my post “To Market, To Market” if you want to further chew on it.)

Moving on, the bits that I’m quoting here are from one of my latest reads, Hemingway’s posthumously published book, A Moveable Feast. The title, though chosen by his wife after his death, bears Hemingway’s stamp, taking liberties as he did with spelling and punctuation out of an innate grammatical logic of his own—in this case, the “ea” in “Moveable.” In any case, I used to read so much Hemingway in my teens and twenties and had neglected him for a while until recently reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife about his days in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife Hadley. This led to reading A Moveable Feast, his own accounts of what transpired in those ol’ Paris days, and then re-reading The Sun Also Rises, which is essentially autobiographical of a group trip at that time to Pamplona, Spain. It’s funny how we readers bring so much to a story’s meaning depending on our evolving frame of reference, because first reading that novel a decade or two ago was a different experience for me than reading it now as a fellow American expat in Europe—especially different after attending a bull fight in Madrid last year (and sobbing like an infant, I might add. I’m not going to run out and join PETA or anything, but I’ll say this: Never. Again.)

Anyway, that’s the side of literature I’ve been embracing again: being a reader. Nonetheless, as I won’t be entirely foregoing the trials and tribulations of being a writer (as implied in my last post), I thought I’d share some insights on writing Hemingway gave throughout his Paris memoirs—Paris being where he was still cutting his teeth on his pencil. I’ll break it up into separate posts as this is already getting long, but before I close up shop today, I’ll share this from Seán Hemingway’s introduction to the book. Regarding how A Moveable Feast was originally going to be titled The Early Eye and The Ear:

The eye, a term usually used in the connoisseurship of fine art, draws an interesting comparison between writing and painting […] Hemingway first developed his eye, his ability to discern the gold from the dross and turn his observations into prose, in Paris in the twenties. The ear, which we think of as more pertinent to musical composition, is clearly important to creative writing. Hemingway’s writing typically reads well when spoken aloud. When complete, his writing is so tight that every word is integral, like notes in a musical composition.

Hemingway’s writing isn’t for everyone. I, too, fluctuate in my response to it sometimes. But I’ll never question my overall love for his storytelling if only for For Whom the Bell Tolls. He brought something different to the table, and even if it isn’t the style other writers or readers want to embrace, the discipline and the principles he abided by were universally sound. Until next time, when we’ll hear more of what Ernest has to say!

PART II

PART III


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


Hiya!  I’m back from where I left off yesterday. Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone in a great deal of suspense, as this post will only reek of anticlimax :).

What I was about to continue yammering on about last night, at any rate, was that sentimentality is not the only way my past informs my writing.  To start, yes, I’ve had a lovely life—I’d be an ungrateful twit not to acknowledge that and count my blessings every day (I know, la-dee-frickin’-da, right?)—yet to be honest it concerned me this would hurt my writing, make it too naive, idealized, and anything otherwise be too two-dimensional and cliché.  And that’s a very valid concern…

I couldn’t help but peek ahead in my very-neglected Room to Write book, where on page 90 Bonni Goldberg says:

“Where we come from influences both what we write and how we write. […] This is why six people can describe the same tree differently. Each person sees it through a unique set of experiences.”

And then she warns that:

“Cliché seeps into writing when writers forget or neglect to bring who they are into the piece.”

This reinforces what eventually got me over the above concern.  Everyone’s life brings something to the writing desk, and maybe some of things I don’t understand first-hand consequently don’t have a place in my writing. Maybe this, then, helps me narrow down my focus, find my creative niche where what I do know can be optimized.  OR maybe what I don’t know presents that extra intellectual-emotional challenge that could be enriching to explore further through research and imagination, as when a method actor immerses into a new role.  In that way, I don’t have to be so pigeon-holed after all.

Then there is the simple fact that, despite general trend, my life of course hasn’t been entirely rosy! I know pain, heartache, depression, and have sharpened my teeth around anger and resentment pretty well in my day…I may idealize the past out of sentimentality, but I’ve also brought in the darker emotions from the tougher experiences I’ve had—case in point being the “writing-as-therapy” I mentioned yesterday. As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together.  Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.

I’m not going to do the writing prompt today, but the exercise on that above-mentioned page from Room to Write asks us to write about our origins, beginning with, “I come from.” In doing so, we’re to also consider the sensory details coinciding with our memories that, by virtue of experiencing them, have impacted who we are.

Now, to put my teacher-cap back on briefly, I can’t help but recall from this a poem I had to teach my sophomores during a unit on discovering our cultural identities and identifying how they shape our individual frames of reference:

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

In “An Interview with George Ella Lyon,” the poet says:

“If I weren’t from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic expression and my experience — I don’t know how to separate these), my writing — and I —  might be bolder.  I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is, I’ve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in what I’ve written and/or published.  I anguish a lot about hurting or betraying family members…On the other hand, if I weren’t from Appalachia, my work might not have the same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.  Certainly it wouldn’t have its roots in the rocky creeks and high horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.”

Though kids inevitably groaned over reading and writing poetry, I always loved this activity because they’d surprise themselves—by recalling and isolating the simplest of images, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, they’d craft their own “Where I’m From” poems that offered profound insight into who they were, and I think in the end they were proud, learning that if they seized the power to really know themselves, they could harness the power to write.

Such a simple exercise here, yet so dense as we draw out the good along with all the bad to build the organs and flesh around the skeletons of our characters and infuse them with blood and soul.

And YOU, my dears? How does your sense of self inform your writing?


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part I

Sentimentality is both a blessing and a curse.

I’ve demonstrated before to what extent I can cling onto the past in my guest post for Real Bloggers United, “CSI: Chronically Sentimental Individual.”  Now, in the spirit of the recently passed Halloween, let’s just say my memories continue to “haunt” me…

But in good ways (hence, a “blessing”), though sometimes they hurt so good (hence, a “curse”).  I first conceived this topic last week when my parents’ visit came to an end and they returned Stateside.  Though the effect has had a few days to wear off, I remember how I walked home from the tube and almost couldn’t bear how everything I saw reminded me of them because of our recent walks around the neighborhood together.  Forget that I’ve traversed that same route for over two years now and between their two visits they haven’t even been in London a total of two months…the memories with them seemed to replace my collective everyday experience.  Same went for when I returned to the flat and sobbed over little things like the coffee remaining in the French press that we’d shared earlier that morning.  I know, I know…it’s passed now, though tonight I’m jolted with another stroke of sweet sentimentality from home, as I just checked my Facebook messages and saw one from a former student I taught my last year in the States. She was a freshman at the time and is now a grown-up senior about to graduate…simply cannot believe it! My babies! Anyways, she had the sweetest things to say, which made me really pine for those happy teaching years.

In view of such “ghosts” from my past, I find that they appear in some incarnation or another in my writing, perhaps in special homage of these special people and moments.  “Write what you know,” they always say, and I do, knowing full well I am clearly not alone.  I’m constantly reading intros to novels that state how they’re the “most autobiographical” of the author’s works, and, really, isn’t every work of fiction arguably so?  Just ways of telling our truths “slant”?

At the time I started my current manuscript, I was in need of emotional healing to follow leaving home and career, so the tale I began to spin was much more so a “therapy” than an ambition. I didn’t care if it was unoriginal; I let my first chapters draw very much from my own background, which resurrected the spirit of my earlier happiness and allowed it drift and swirl around me in my new atmosphere. The words brought it alive, brought the people and the values back to me and reminded me who I was in an otherwise unfamiliar context that sapped me of purpose. The story certainly evolved from there into a terrain highly unlike anything on which I myself have embarked, but those early chapters gave my protagonist her core, and in doing so assured me of mine.

Among the sentimental inspirations from real life, there are very direct ones that creep up in sentences reflecting the comforting closeness of my family like:

“They weren’t the stuff best-sellers and blockbusters were made of, and prayed they never would emulate what society spent its money on or turned its channel to.”

“Her mom multi-tasked concern for her child with rescuing bacon strips from their spitting inferno.  She wore her short, hairsprayed curls like a helmet ready to combat any threats to her family head-on.”

I’ve also incorporated actual snippets from childhood diaries and adulthood travel journals. Plucked entirely out of their original contexts, though, it’s crazy the way they fit in and communicate something entirely new and different and had inspired new offshoots of sheerly imaginative thought, not that from experience.  It’s been like dismantling a clock and using some of its gears to operate, ooh, maybe something like the Happiness Machine in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (which, in keeping with our theme here, is a valentine to Bradbury’s own childhood).

It’s all about our frames of reference.  No one could possibly perceive the world in exactly the same way that we do individually because we occupy separate space and move differently through it. This gives us our own private reality, then, and this is what writers constantly tap into to construct their fictional realities.  And there’s more I’d like to say on this, but am realizing this is getting long, so I’ll break it into two parts.  Fair enough?  Cool.  See you tomorrow.


The Writing on the Cubicle Wall

I was just reading, albeit belatedly, a beautifully structured and written memoir of September 11, 2001 on Liza‘s Reading Makes Me Happy blog.  She lists her memories of it and asks her readers to share what they remember as well.  I just left the poor gal a lengthy comment that was like a post in itself, so I thought I may as well share it here:

“I remember first hearing about it on the radio, sitting in my car driving across Chicago. The morning show was talking about a plane that had hit the WTC and still wondering if it had been an accident…until the second one hit. I remember my mother’s worried voice on my answering machine when I got back to my apartment and how I tried to tune in on my 18-year-old television! The antenna reception was awful, and the picture began flipping just before I heard the cries of the newscasters. I remember smacking my TV to get a clear picture of what had raised the alarm, and it clicked into place just before the first building finished collapsing. I remember dressing for work, tentatively, then driving on Lake Shore Drive toward the office, listening to how they still didn’t know if there were more planes out there or what their targets would be. From my view, I saw the Sears Tower and my own office building, Chicago’s 3rd tallest in which my office was on the 74th floor. I remember seeing all the workers emptying into the street, so I passed my exit and headed straight for the highway out to my parents’ house in the suburbs…where I remember watching the footage on the news for hours on end with mouth agape and trying to grasp the reality with my mom and dad that we were at war.”

I prayed and grieved all over again this last Saturday, yet I hadn’t retraced my own footsteps of nine years ago so clearly until writing out this comment.  There is so much more that is momentous about that day beyond little me and my own little everyday world, but in the wake of my previous post about my latest professional and personal endeavors, I am reminded how that day was so pivotal in bringing me to this point.

I remember the growing discontent I’d had in my world of Finance, but how I’d stick it out with no real impetus for change.  I was rotating along as a good cog in the wheel should, but otherwise doing nothing I was passionate about.  So then I remember sitting on my parents’ sofa that day and watching replays of the planes flying into the Twin Towers—they looked so much like my own office building, that I thought, “I’ll be damned if that’s the place where I die!”  I would not leave this world that way, not sitting in my cubicle, oh please no.

By September 11, 2002, I had started my masters program in Education, having quit my consulting job that year to teach literature and writing.

Fast-forward to 2008, when my high school was in the midst of a Columbine-type scare:  a threat had been found written in a bathroom stall that was alarmingly specific as to how many guns (and what type) would be used to kill how many students and how many teachers and on what day.  School wasn’t called off, but teachers and students were at liberty to make their own decision as to whether they’d attend; for the protection of those that came, police would be patrolling.  Faculty was understandably distressed, but what were we going to do, bail on our students?  Call in substitute teachers so then they could be in the line of fire?

Regardless of whether the threat was real, I never questioned that I’d be there.  I thought back to 9/11 and my sentiments about dying in my office…I then looked upon my students’ faces and realized there was no better place to be if that was going to be my time.

That’s when I knew I’d gotten my life moving in the right direction, ever closer to my passions of reading, writing, and helping other people along the way—otherwise, I’d still be pathetically comparing my life to the movie Office Space and not doing anything about it.  There is much to take away from such a national/global tragedy, not the least of which is an appreciation for every additional day that we get to breathe.  Others certainly don’t lose their lives just so we can piss away ours.


If Truth Be Told…


Halfway through Sophie’s World, and it keeps prompting new thoughts.  Well, more accurately, the history of philosophy that it shares does.

Though dear Sophie and I have already progressed to the 18th century, Plato’s ancient allegory of the cave continues to flicker in my mind like the flame casting shadows onto the back of the cave wall.  If you aren’t familiar with the story, the basic idea is this: 

Visualize a cave with people seated with their backs to its opening.  They are therefore only able to see the back of the cave wall, which is dancing with the shadows of objects held behind the people and in front a fire.  The people are unable to turn around, thus only know the world from these vague shadows of what’s transpiring beyond them outside of the cave.  

In this myth, the actual objects (which would be seen in clearer detail if the people turned around to look at them directly) represent the world of ideas, whereas the shadows are only our perception of the material world.  Plato believed that true knowledge could not be gained through our senses, but, rather, our reason.  Thus, the enlightened ones who try to see beyond their physical world into the realm of ideas will see with clarity and truth.

So why do most of us keep our backs to the cave opening, staring into the darkness and shadows?  Is it because we choose not to see or aren’t able to?  When I think of this myth literally, I pretend that I’m the one to stand up and look around at what is creating the shadows.  My eyes having been adjusted to the dark all this time, I’d think they’d be pierced by the bright fire/daylight.  This then makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Methinks Miss Dickinson and Colonel Jessep share something in common—though Emily might agree we ordinary folk are entitled to the truth, neither believes we can handle it.  For that matter, how would everyone else in my cave respond if I suddenly told them what I saw?  Would they believe me?  Be shocked by it?  Deny it?

Me-then thinks perhaps stories are a way we writers try to help the medicine go down.  Hey, Plato’s allegory is a case in point, is it not?  Stories help us to better understand truths through visualization and creative “slant”—no, not lies, just not necessarily the facts either when it comes to fiction.  And I shouldn’t imply that it’s “sugar-coating”; indeed, stories well-told will intensify rather than dilute, expressed in engaging, vivid ways that make a reader receptive to even the grittier stuff.

Years ago, I attended a lecture  by Tim O’Brien in which he discussed his novel The Things They Carried.  Written in the first person and narrated by a character whose name was also Tim and who also fought in Vietnam, the book reads like it’s the author’s memoir.  O’Brien clarified, however, that while much of the novel is based on his real life, it is a novel.  Flip to the inside cover and see that it is denoted as a work of fiction (there are many semi-autobiographical narratives that are, which many don’t realize until Oprah exposes it mercilessly on her show…*ahem* A Million Little Pieces *cough*…Night is arguably another—and oh, hey, just look whose book club it’s in…).

Basically, O’Brien said he had to stray from writing the factual truth in order to tell the absolute Truth.  He likened it to catching your first fish; sure, it might be scrawny, but your excitement is massive.  In order to get someone else as excited about your catch as you are, you might stretch your hands further apart from the few inches of, “It was this big,” to the two-foot length of, “It was THIS BIG!!”  Describing a tiny bluegill as a giant catfish isn’t factually true, but your friend’s commensurate reaction is the Truth of what you actually felt.  Likewise, O’Brien believed that for anyone who didn’t experience Vietnam to feel remotely the way he felt when he was there, he needed to tell it differently.

So my question for YOU is this:  what Truths do you write or read about?  Which of your stories (or those you’ve read) do you think do a particularly effective job of helping the reader “handle the truth” and why?


Team Gaucho: Gaffes and Gallivants

What happens when two Yankees with an empty tank and wallet take to the open Patagonian road?

Join me on the journey of two victims of their generation, taken directly from a worn, leather-bound journal that joins others like itself in chronicling the travels of an ignoramus. This was my guest post at the now defunct Real Bloggers United in response to its “Holiday” theme.

 

Patagonia:  Pesos, Pussycats, & Petrol

 

This memoir is a direct transcription from my 2007 travel journal, when my husband (fiancé at the time) and I traveled to South America’s Patagonia. This particular entry involves our roundtrip road-trip from El Calafate, Argentina to Torres Del Paine, Chile.

El Calafate, Argentina, 29 March 2007

The Blackberry calleth us to consciousness early yesterday morning, but we waketh not early. Both needing sleepy long-time, we snoozed a bit longer until, rriiiipp! Off had to go the Band-Aid of blissful sleep so we could ready for our next adventure. Off we went around 10:30am to seek out Ruta 40. Missing our intended turn, we luckily remained on route to Esperanza, which was a longer, but easier way to take—paved all the way until the border, whereas approximately 70km of our originally mapped journey would have been unpaved in addition to the 100km or so leading into Chile and to Torres Del Paine national park.

Once past Esperanza, just as the guidebook promised, we could see the jagged torres on the horizon for the rest of the drive in. Between us and that wicked vision looming in the distance was a vast openness of dry plains and low hills, much like the American West. Turning onto a gravel road to cross the border, the Argentinian immigration/customs site came out of nowhere—a couple white buildings standing solitary in an ocean of uncultivated, unpaved land, making its sister Chilean border patrol seem like a bustling metropolis in comparison.

Just driving into the park was an experience in and of itself: the sinister blades of stone once in the distance now crept in upon us before we knew it—utterly thrilling to behold. The whimsy-factor was certainly upped by the plethora of guanacos we encountered roadside (at one point, they must have numbered at least 50), as well as ostrich-like birds, the choique. Check 2 off the wildlife-indigenous-to-the-area list, 3 if you count the dead skunks on the road; happily, we did not check puma off this list.

Feeling lame that we naïve, Starbucks-and-ATM Americans had not thought of withdrawing more Argentine pesos or exchanging to Chilean ones in preparation for our border-crossing, the park guy at the administrative office let us pass on the condition that we’d pay on our way out. Reaching our campsite off Lago Pehoe after more twists-n-turns, we were ecstatic to leave the car and stretch our legs in the presence of such awe-inspiring natural wonder.

Perhaps just as awe-ful (really, as in awful) was the simultaneous realization that we needed to spend our remaining pesos for the camp site, and, therefore, had to find a way of obtaining Chilean cambio in a realm of no ATMS, as well as fill our car with fuel.

Prior to finding fuel that evening, we had—after a brief hike around our new surroundings—walked a kilometre to the neighboring hotel in hopes of exchanging cash or using a credit card. No. So we walked back to our site, hopped into the car and drove the other way to the other neighboring hotel. Si. I was able to exchange 120 USD for 60,000 Chilean pesos, 30,000 of which would cover our park access. The remaining 30,000 had to be budgeted carefully, a concept neither my husband nor I are very savvy with.

It was at this hospitable location that we were directed to our fuel source 15 minutes up the road to take care of Desperate Need #2. Before we left the hotel, I had befriended a baby gato that was killing me with its cute mewing in the parking lot until we nearly killed it when it crawled under the freaking car when we needed to back up and leave.

The rest reads like a hybrid drama/horror movie: I had to tempt the kitty far from the car so my husband could start it up and maneuver it for exiting, at which point my guilt-ridden goodbyes to el gato were replaced with the shrill yell, “Open the door! OPEN THE DOOR!!” as I ran to the car to out-chase the kitten running after me. You see, the door on the passenger side of our ancient VW Polo always had to be opened from the inside because it was broken. Regardless, when I looked back in the midst of screaming bloody-murder, the kitten had since stopped following me a great distance off; it was instead preoccupied with new people who’d just driven in and likely thought I was an American Psycho not only ditching a poor kitten but running screaming from it and trying to hop into a moving vehicle. The pièce de résistance would have been if my husband, in trying to make a speedy getaway, had dropped the transmission right there.

Ah, but returning to the Gas Quest, we drove to where the hotel had directed us. The owner of whatever that establishment was informed us this wasn’t where we could get gas, yet at the last-minute called out to offer to sell us some. We took his word on the price, and our 4 litres were delivered to us in a juice bottle and “pumped” into the tank with a jerry-rigged device that likewise appeared to be made of some sort of beverage container…

When we got back to our site with a tank filled in unorthodox fashion, we found there were slim pickin’s at the wee campsite store for dinner, so we thought long and hard about how to allocate our remaining pesos: 14,000 to dinner at the restaurant since there was zero available we could cook ourselves (unless we desired a Starburst/marshmallow/M&M bouillabaisse), and I think another 12,000 to water, oatmeal, marmalade, and firewood in prep for that night’s warmth and this morning’s breakfast. This newfound necessity for frugality, however, didn’t stop us from investing good American dough in a bottle of wine (Chilean merlot) to have with dinner, the very tonic that probably contributed to the Fight-Heard-Round-the-Camp, which eventually unfolded during said meal.

Ah, well. It was a kiss-and-make-up morning with the new day amidst pink mountains and hills full of rainbows. The melancholy thing about rainbows is that no matter how clearly they appear, when you chase them, there is nothing there. They are fleeting. The magical thing that happened to me this morning, though, was that, just as I was gazing out the window and registering this very thought as I watched a rainbow dissipate on reaching it, another one leapt out from behind the hill almost immediately thereafter, even brighter and more vividly distinct in its color spectrum than the first, if that could have been possible. Huh. Not so fleeting after all, those rainbows…

Well, once we awoke this morning, packed up our tent, and ate our most delicious oatmeal/marmalade-combo, we washed our dishes, got the auto packed, resigned ourselves to a 2nd day without showering, and set out around 9:30-10:00am Argentine time to retrace our steps out of the park—but not without making a wee side excursion for a brief and easy hike to a nearby waterfall. Well, easy in the wide-gravel-path-and-low-incline sense, fierce in the wind-is-so-strong-it’s-as-though-the-wicked-mountains-don’t-want-us-here sense. The spattering rain was actually painful, and the lake waters whipped upwards in broad plumes of spray…not a bad day to not spend in the park. The hovering clouds prevented the fantastic views of the torres we had yesterday, so perhaps it was just as well we had to leave…

…until, holy mother-f***ing s***. Life became The Amazing Race.

We had just barely enough gas to reach Esperanza, the next town with ever so slightly more commerce than the “towns” we’d been through—indeed, the beacon of “hope” (the town’s namesake) we relied on to employ automated machines accepting credit cards, perhaps.

Instead, as we rolled into our 2nd station of the day (the 3rd fuel source of the previous 24 hours), why no, in fact, they do not accept credito and apologize for the inconvenience.

We drive to the café across the street, with persisting hope that they will exchange cambio or accept the plastic, but our situation became increasingly hopeless. And we still had almost 300km more to drive.

As we walked out to the lot, a tour bus just unloaded its human cargo for leg-stretching at the café. I told my husband they might be our only hope, that we would have to beg for “money, honey” (yes, I used those words in a time of crisis). I wouldn’t have considered it had I not seen it successfully executed so many times on The Amazing Race after non-elimination rounds. Sadly, reality TV differs significantly from “reality” when you don’t have a cameraman running around with you. Who knew what leverage that could be internationally, when good Samaritans will come out of the woodwork for their 15-minutes of fame.

After asking a tour member for cambio given our predicament, he insisted that the station would offer credit as an option. This was seconded by another man, despite our insistence that they didn’t. We got back in our car, pooled our cash and held our breath; I pondered anything that we could possibly pawn. Though we saw a credit card machine on the station counter, just beyond loomed the same sign we saw before stating cards wouldn’t be taken. It is not often that one finds oneself in the situation of slapping down 3 different denominations of currency on a gas station counter, asking for the attendant to please accept. He and a coworker thumbed through our combined 4,000 Chilean pesos, 2 Argentine pesos, and 4-odd U.S. dollars (barely exceeding 10 USD in total, and our U.S. coins no doubt being worthless to them), which they somehow deemed acceptable and worth 15 litres to us.

With assurance that this would bring us back to El Calafate (and an actual 17 litres added to our malnourished tank out of the goodness of their hearts), we were on our way with sighs of relief, a grin on our faces, a sense of adventure, and a great lesson learned on not taking modern alternatives to cold, hard cash for granted.

The tranquility of yesterday’s sunshine and low winds, though, remains at the forefront of my mind when I think of Torres Del Paine. I think of its aqua-grey lakes and how their waves sounded like a million pearls tapping and colliding as they cascaded and rolled over one another in crashing to the shore. I think of the twilight looked upon through a teardrop-shaped tent window. The experience wasn’t restful, but the memories already are.

And that much more so three years later. We can’t wait to return…with a wallet loaded with local currency and tank filled with fuel. 🙂


The Monkey Meltdown

Real Bloggers United

What happens when you combine a tiki, whiteboard, and woman pushed to her brink?

To start off on a tangent, I’m back in London and rubbing together what brain cells I have to work with during my lingering jet-lag…zzzzzzzz…

I promise to get back up in my tree and swingin’ on the vines again this week, but first allow me to share another guest post of mine that featured on Real Bloggers United (“RBU“). This is a personal memoir that I offered up for RBU’s July theme, “The Day My Patience Died.”

 

No Child Left Behind…That Can’t Bring His or Her Own Self Forward

“We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”
Robert Frost

There was a time last year when my patience was whittled to its tender core, its raw, throbbing nerve exposed until it one day collapsed in the throes of death.

Allow me to provide some context.

Three years before my patience died, I began my career as a high school English teacher after leaving the Finance field. It was a challenging first year of self-doubt and pining for the safe confines of my cubicle, questioning if I’d made the right decision in sacrificing money and lifestyle to pursue this entirely different path. But I persevered—it was a shift in identity, but one I’d chosen, and it taught me that it isn’t all about me after all…Helping teenagers recognize their abilities and become the best versions of themselves is a calling and a blessing.

Three months before my patience died, I moved to London as a newlywed. It had been a summer of transition—of ending a school year, of beginning a marriage, of packing…of resigning. After a few months of settling in, I registered with a London teaching agency, interviewed, and found a long-term substitute (supply) position on the outskirts of the city, to commence just after the New Year.

Three weeks before my patience died, I was touring Ireland with my husband on our way back from visiting the States for Christmas. That rolling landscape, unfathomably green for January, helped to quell what was steadily curdling within me: panic. Panic that I’d accepted the job within hours of flying home for the holidays; panic that I was now only days away from starting; panic that the school provided me with no materials so I could plan my units. For those who haven’t taught, I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to plan out lessons in advance. Sure, you end up having to modify on the fly depending on what’s working and what isn’t any given minute, but that’s exactly why you need the game-plan coming into it. The unpredictable is inevitably going to happen, so having an organized, logical basis to work with is all that will give you some semblance of control when the day sucks you into its current, taking you where it may as it tosses and tumbles you on its foaming pedagogical waves.

Three days before my patience died, I was poising to quit, and the next day I phoned the teaching agency to request replacement. My patience was already on its death-bed, you see, and it was time to call in the sick nurse. A unique intersection of factors (which I endearingly call “The Perfect Storm”) had gotten me down—the emotional trauma of relocating as an accompanying spouse, the aforementioned lack of resources/support from the school as I tried to adjust to a new national curriculum and procedures, the guilt that my lack of UK training could possibly sabotage student achievement. But the one factor that proved to be the last straw to break the proverbial camel’s back, however, lasted right up until…

…three seconds before I banged my Tiki stick on the floor and spontaneously decided on a new methodology.

(FYI, the Tiki is a carved wooden stick I bought in New Zealand and use as a pointing tool and “zero noise” signal—no, not for corporal punishment or conjuring hexes…yet).

Right. It was time for a change in tack. Why? Because after breaking up three fist-fights my first week and continuing to enjoy that privilege over the next, I was a bit tired. I came from a suburban school district in which a light congratulatory pat on a student’s shoulder could’ve gotten me sued, and here I was practically shoving my foot against one student’s face to gain better leverage to pry the other off and grip him (or her!) in a bear-hug, thereby preventing another pounding. And when they weren’t fighting, they were incessantly hopping out of their seats and jabbering off topic, as students will do.

As a result, lessons never reached fruition due to behavior I admittedly couldn’t manage effectively (despite learning I could be quite the physical powerhouse when need be). The advice I always received from the toughened urban teachers was to yell and yell loudly, which I really did try. But aside from hurting my throat, it really didn’t make a difference and only left me not liking who I was by the end of the school day. Ultimately, I knew I had to stay true to myself, and if that wasn’t enough, well then, I wasn’t meant to be in this position.

Nonetheless, I still had to survive the last week. And, as an educator, I needed to teach! So my patience finally died when I handed my Years 9s a worksheet and asked them to silently read it and write their responses. On seeing that only six students had, in fact, followed the directions, I was done.

It was time to leave children behind.

“Okay, if you, you, you, and you, you, and you could please gather your things and come up here to the front of the room, please,” I asked as I pointed to each of the six diligent students. Might I add that these were also my quietest kids, thus the most reluctant to participate in class, especially when their shy ideas were squashed by their more unconstructive, attention-seeking peers.

I could tell the chosen students were confused, but I warmly encouraged them to continue toward the front. As for the disengaged kids already sitting there:

“All right. You guys’ll have to move back.”

I’m still surprised how no one really questioned me at this point. The obedient and disobedient alike followed my instructions and got up. They loved being out of their seats, after all.

“Okay, so you six, let’s bring these tables a bit forward, and if you two don’t mind just bringing those chairs round so we’re close to the whiteboard. There, that’s great.”

They got themselves situated, and, within close range of the Chosen Six, I proceeded to explain in a normal speaking voice (i.e., not the teaching one that speaks over students instead of bringing their volume down):

“Okay, so this isn’t going to be easy, but what I need you guys to do is concentrate really hard on listening to me. Just ignore those yahoos in back. Let them screw off; we’re not going to care. I can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, so I’m letting them choose for themselves whether they want an education or they don’t.” At this point, I wasn’t even looking at the outlying students, only my Chosen Six. “I refuse to raise my voice—we should be able to speak civilly, so just stay with me, and we’ll be okay.”

With their modest, smiling faces nodding in assent, I proceeded to ask the same question that minutes earlier had met with blank expressions because three-fourths of the class hadn’t read what they were supposed to. This time, my quietest students had the confidence to answer.

“Yes, very good!” I said, promoting their esteem further by writing responses on the whiteboard, transcribing their intelligence for posterity (at least until I had to erase it for the next period…).

Their smiles grew and their eagerness to share more ideas flourished in multiple raised hands. There was no question they felt the buzz of receiving individualized attention and having earned status among an elite few.

The Unchosen Ones were quick to pick up on this. And, after a time, some of them wanted in on it, too.

One girl who typically looked at me with a deadened stare from the back of the room while sucking her thumb was never one of my allies in successful lesson execution, usually only pulling her thumb out long enough to share in the smacking and unruly chatter that prevailed back there. This day, though, she collected her bag and stood to walk to the front of the room. She politely asked for another handout, as hers had been balled up and thrown elsewhere by then.

I should probably address at this point what, precisely, was going on in the back of the classroom while I was conducting this little experiment. Well, brazen tomfoolery, that’s what. A little over half of the other students were up on their feet and throwing paper wads into the rubbish bin that they’d positioned on top of a table. They were yelling and jabbing and singing with Dionysian abandon given this new, unusual liberty. The seated ones, however, eventually turned to face the front again, and from their eye contact, I could tell their ears were straining to hear what was transpiring among the Chosen Six.

Or should I say Chosen Seven now that the thumb-sucker had joined us and started offering up her ideas—very good ones at that. A minute later, two other girls left their seats to drag them up front as well. One by one, some boys made the move, too, including the one who’d started to yell to me, “Hey, Miss! Hey, why aren’t you teaching us? Miss, why won’t you look at me? Hey!”

I handed each newcomer a fresh handout and welcomed them with, “In coming up here, you’re choosing to learn. If you can’t participate in this lesson, I’d honestly prefer you go back and do whatever else you want. I won’t get mad; you won’t get in trouble. It’s entirely your choice.”

They stayed with me.

By this time, given the loud ruckus in the back managed well enough by only a few boys, the Chosen Seven + Several More (who shall henceforth be named The Ones Who Chose Education) had felt the need to abandon the tables altogether and pull their chairs closer to the whiteboard, forming a tight semicircle around me.

By the end of the period, only three boys remained in the back.

“This was our best lesson, guys! Awesome job; I’m really proud,” I congratulated as The Ones Who Chose Education exited after the bell rang.

But as my day continued, other challenging classes had to be endured, and I was yet again demoralized by the time I returned home that evening.

Consequently, the next day as I walked back to the classroom to confront my Year 9s again, I had already given up on the experiment and figured I’d just resume instruction (or lack thereof) as usual and engage in survival mode for the last couple days. In trepidation and defeat, I approached the classroom door. I passed through the threshold, and almost audibly gasped at what I saw…

* * *

There was a day I had believed my patience died, but I lived to tell the tale. And live on I did with a renewed sense of satisfaction and confidence, as well as a question on my mind:

Had my patience died that day, or did what didn’t kill it only make it stronger?

* * *

I passed through the threshold, and almost audibly gasped at what I saw: a group of Year 9 students who arrived earlier than me. I had caught them out of their seats and right in the middle of—

—pushing tables back and dragging chairs forward. They were rearranging the classroom into exactly the way we’d left it the day before. They were making the decision for me.

I followed their cue, then, and conducted the lesson in this way again.

Two students (only one from the day before while the other had been absent) shot baskets between empty tables filling the open expanse of the rear two-thirds of the classroom.

Twenty others squished together with their notebooks on their laps in a semicircle around the whiteboard, choosing Education.

 

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Swingin’ Over to the RBU Tree

Real Bloggers United

For what, pray tell, could this poor little panda have been incarcerated?

The Monkey likes to stretch its limbs in other cyber-trees sometimes, so you could formerly read my guest post over at Real Bloggers United (“RBU”) for all the sordid details of this particular case. RBU was once a lovely forum of diverse bloggers who devote quality time and writing to their blogs and readers—it wasn’t about ads and revenue but collaborating toward blogging with substance.  I was proud to be a part of this initiative while it lasted, but alas, all good things come to an end, so now I’m reposting my RBU contribution here.

Every month, RBU’s guest bloggers followed a specific theme, and this May was “Treasures.”

CSI: Chronically Sentimental Individual

Confession: I am a sentimental schmuck by nature.
Exhibit A: Bag of wallpaper shavings that has resided in my parents’ garage for well over two decades.
Motive: My change-fearing child-self cried so hard when my mom hung new wallpaper in our kitchen.
Defense Plea:
I do not recall how old I was at that time, but I assert that I was too young to know better. And if that defense is ineffectual, I’d like to call in a medical witness who can diagnose me with terminal sentimentality, as I continue to be prone to such attacks to this day (it’s genetic—my parents will testify on my behalf if subpoenaed). Regardless, I did not act alone. I believe that hanging from my arm at the scene of the crime were undoubtedly one of the two usual suspects.

Accomplice #1: Yammy Pie
Alias: Yammy
Species: Lamb
Present Location: Chicago, IL
Identifying Characteristics: Orange fur. Missing one ear and outright chunks of matted fur, leaving behind distinctive threadbare markings.

Profile:
The intent was to call her “Lamby,” but for some unknown reason I would not pronounce the “L” sound at the age of three. Once, my grandma attempted speech therapy in trying to get me to repeat after her, “Luh-Luh-Lamby.” For every failed attempt, I responded, “Luh-Luh-Yammy.”

Another time I overheard my dad and older brothers yelling at a game on TV, “Go Miami!” I looked at them with brows furrowed territorially and insisted, “No, MY Yammy.” (My inner selfish bitch blossomed at an early age, as you can see, but that is irrelevant to the case and should be struck from the record.)

Yammy was a friend and confidante for two blissful years until Accomplice #2 arrived on the scene to usurp my affections.

Accomplice #2: Amanda the Panda
Alias: Mander (pronounced ‘mahn-der’)
Species: Panda Bear
Present Location: London, UK
Identifying Characteristics: Course, pebbly fur, matted down and hardened from decades of hugging. Scratched eye surface (resembles cataracts). Pronounced indentation around the waistline caused by wearing a doll’s skirt that was too small for six months. [Note: Amanda grew one inch taller on our family growth chart during the early 1980s due to compression of aforementioned hugging. Therefore, be advised that she may now appear even taller.]

Profile:
Amanda the Panda was a Christmas gift from my parents when I was five. She has an “official” birth certificate that I scribed by hand with a blue ballpoint pen on a sheet of notebook paper. The document can presently be found in my photo album archives in Chicago.

Two years ago, I transported Amanda over the Atlantic in my carry-on so she could reside with me in London. On the occasional night when I’m sunken into a mode of regression, I will fall asleep hugging her, much to my husband’s dismay when he ends up having to spoon us both. I have been known to still sniff the bear now and then to find the comfort of my own scent like I did as a kid.

Amanda has survived soakings, hangings, and kidnappings. There was one occasion when my father took her and me to a Teddy Bear clinic so her arm could be stitched and wrapped in gauze.

No injury was sustained during one said kidnapping, however. Indeed, my older siblings had only staged her murder when they shoved her in the microwave. After I ran away wailing to the sound of them setting the timer, they replaced her with a pile of black and white soil from a potted plant and brought me back to see what I believed were her charred ashes. No charges were pressed against the offenders; however, this is why Amanda has remained in my sole custody after all these years.

Closing Statement:
As much as I try not to rely on material objects for meaning, I think it is only natural that those of us who suffer from terminal sentimentality will assign immense intangible value to the tangible things we can physically carry with us as time fleets away. With their appeal to the visual and tactile senses, our personal treasures are perhaps the closest we will ever come to a time machine for the speed with which they transport us back to our cherished past and integrate it into our ongoing existence. Is it the fur, stuffing, and curling shards of wallpaper that bear intrinsic value for me? Of course not. But the value I attach to them could never be appraised nor ever depreciate, and for that reason, I hold on.

I rest my case.


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