Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three-Minute Fiction

A few weeks ago, my oldest friend Amy encouraged me to enter NPR's three-minute fiction contest. Back in the day, when I wrote more frequently and more than blog posts, I was more of a poet(ess?) than a fiction writer. But I gave it a shot anyway. Today I saw that All Adither had posted her entry, so I decided to make like a blogger and steal her idea, and then I encouraged BD and SAM to do the same. The story had to be somehow based on this photograph:


I can’t make myself see, anymore, the way her eyes turned slightly downward at the corners or hear the hidden music I know that her voice contained. I can’t smell her clean cotton smell or feel the tangles of her hair as they felt to my grasping hands. A world of memory, the million moments of my life’s small years, vanished. Impossible that it could be so, undeniable that it is.

Clearest are the last times that I saw her. In her kitchen, seeming suddenly shrunken and breakable, reaching up to a high shelf. At my apartment, carefully keeping a neutral expression, her eyes taking in the fact that it was no bigger or nicer than the last three places I’d lived, that it contained no husband or expectant cradle, but refusing to send out any sign of disappointment. And her birthday, the one that maybe she knew would be her last, when I took her to lunch.

Who can say that everything I did that day was the wrong thing? What perfect daughter dares to judge me? I was the spoiled youngest child, the only girl. That day, her birthday, I took her to a small sandwich shop near my apartment where I ate three times a week.

“Let’s sit here,” I said, settling her at the orange postage stamp of a table. I went up to the counter in search of a menu and came back to find her with her coat still on, purse perched on her knees, staring with determination out the big plate glass window beside her. A familiar splinter of irritation shot through me.

“Mom, why don’t you take off your coat? Here, I’ll put it on the back of your chair. Let me have your purse, we’ll hang it right there under the coat. It’s fine.” I bustled around her, resenting for the thousandth time her age, her discomfort in my world, her utter inability to be like the younger mothers of my friends. I pushed the menu in front of her and waited. She stared at it, her expression growing increasingly bewildered.

“I’m not sure I…” she began and then laughed nervously. “What is…what do you like here?” she asked finally. Always composed but never at ease. I sighed and said I’d order for us. I got falafel for myself and a gyro for her, thick slices of spiced lamb wrapped in pita and foil, dripping tzatziki. While we waited for the sandwiches I looked for distractions, flipped through a magazine left on an empty table, checked my phone, looked around at the other patrons. Each time my eyes flitted over her face, they found her watching me.

“Little hummingbird,” she said softly. I rolled my eyes and shifted in my seat; she shook her head, almost imperceptibly. The man at the counter called our number and I couldn’t jump up fast enough to get our sandwiches. When I sat her gyro down she stared at it for a full minute, then looked up at me, brows lifted in amusement. The sandwich was almost as big as her head. I went back to the counter for a plastic knife and fork and she managed about a fourth of it that way before insisting that I take the rest home to eat later.

We were there for less than an hour. I gathered her up, bundled her out with her coat and lunch, so eager to move on that this reversal of our roles was lost on me. But she understood my hurry. It was too much her own not to recognize.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Scattered Pic-Tures

Yesterday in the process of cleaning/rearranging the boys' room to accomodate their new (to them, thanks Chockleys!) couch, BD came across an old picture of me with the boys. Calvin is 4 and Joshua is around 10 months old, balanced on my knee in terry footies looking a little wacky with his huge baby grin. I'm pregnant with Somerset, but you can't tell because of our positioning and my black top and jeans...and the fact that my face is thinner in the picture than it is now.

Pictures are hard for me. I've never photgraphed well, even when I was 17 and weighed 105 pounds. Sure, occasionally there's a good shot of me, but in most pictures I look swollen and chinless. I have actually cried over pictures of myself, because it's so much easier for me to believe the photographic evidence than what I think I see in the mirror each day or what anyone says.

But you know, when I look at a picture of myself with my two sons taken almost eight years ago, and "Shit, I'm fatter than I was pregnant for the second time in two years" outweighs "Aw, look how little and cute my boys were," I know that something is wrong. I know I have to do better, on several levels.

Like the lady sang:

It took me too long to realize
that I don't take good pictures
cuz I have the kind of beauty that moves

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Note to Self

Here's some advice:

Do not allow your small almost-four year old to consume two (three?) Fiber One granola bars over the course of the weekend. It will end badly. Who knew?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me

Here is a little snapshot of this moment:

I just heard about how, in the highrise building directly in front of my classroom window, a father threw his month-old baby down the trash chute from the eleventh floor apartment of its mother. The baby is miraculously unharmed, or I wouldn't have told you. No one needs a dead baby story smacking them unexpectedly in the face. Which happened to me the past two times I've read Katie Granju's blog, one of which was this morning. WTH, Katie?

I just listened to a boy ask a pregnant girl in my class this question: "When your baby is born, is that going to be its birthday or just its birth date?"

My speech class is supposed to be working up opening statements for a debate about the fact that a Mississippi high school has chosen to cancel prom rather than permit a lesbian student to bring her girlfriend as her date, because they know they have no legal grounds. So far the team arguing in favor of the school's decision has nothing. Which is good in a way, but also has more to do with the fact that they haven't bothered to do any research.

Out of the five classes that took a very simple, 25-question practice ACT as their quarter exam, five students passed it. Five. The test questions are identical to the warm-ups we do every. Single. Day. Five. 5.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Long, Long Time Ago and Apparently Awesome

Congratulations to Brigid Pasulka (see interview post below this one) on winning the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True

I learned of this book through the innovative and amazing website of my friend, Chicago-based English teacher Joe Scotese, but didn’t realize until after I read it that Pasulka teaches English at the same magnet high school as Joe. Not one to let a single degree of separation stop me, I struck up a correspondence with the author, and she kindly agreed to let me interview her for The Shelf Life.

Here's part two of the interview.

Sassy: You get up early every morning to write for two hours before going to work as a high school English teacher, is that right? Have you always been that disciplined? What time do you go to bed? How does one form that kind of work habit?

BP: The hard work and discipline definitely comes from my parents. I remember being allowed to watch one hour of television a week when we were young, and even then, we had to get up and clean or fold laundry on the commercials. My dad, especially, never seems to slow down, and I’ve happily inherited that from him. As for writing, I think I was writing here and there for about a year before I decided that I either had to commit to it or leave it alone. So I made a New Year’s resolution (in 1996, I think?) that I was going to write every day. I put a calendar on the wall and crossed off the days until I got into the habit. Now it’s like taking a shower or brushing my teeth—if I don’t write I just don’t feel right. And I’ve always had to work it in around my regular jobs. I am a high school teacher now, so on a normal day I try to go to bed at 10 or 10:30, get up at 5:30 and write until about 7:30. I can usually get to school by 8:15 or 8:30. If, on a rare day, I have to sleep in, I just pack up my computer and go straight from school to a coffee shop in the afternoon and bribe myself with cookies and coffee to put in a couple of hours of writing.

Sassy: I love that this book contains multiple models of femininity that are all portrayed in a non-judgmental way. Magda in her little black dress when everyone else is in jeans, Kinga dreaming of a bigger life and hiding her bad teeth, Baba Yaga thinking she is invisible, and Irena trying to sublimate her womanhood because of grief—they are all so real and so different, and all sympathetic characters. Did you spend time thinking about the way women would be portrayed in the book? Is that something you notice or ever have issues with in your own reading or in your life?

BP: Not at all. In the words of my friend, Joanne, I just followed the story. The characters appeared, and I just wrote down what they did.

Sassy: I also liked and appreciated the fact that although there are some bad men in the book, there are also several really good ones. It strikes me as somewhat unusual that you are able to have both male and female protagonists, and that there is balance in the way both men and women are portrayed. Did you make a conscious effort to do that?

BP: Sometimes I wish I had that much forethought, but no, it all just worked out that way.

Sassy: Did you find yourself thinking like an English teacher when you were writing? Did you think about things like symbolism or wonder if certain themes would go unnoticed, or be overemphasized?

BP: I think I was thinking like an English teacher, not in terms of content—themes and motifs and such—but more in terms of audience. Planning lessons and standing in front of the classroom, I’m constantly reshuffling to make things clearer, more interesting or more relevant for my students, which is a very similar process to what I’m doing when I’m writing. Teaching also helps to keep my sense of humor intact—my students keep me laughing all day long. And now when I do a reading, I just pretend I’m reading the Odyssey to a room full of fourteen-year-olds and trying to keep their attention. It really works.

Sassy: Has becoming a published author affected your identity as a teacher or the way people at work act toward you?

BP: Not that much, actually. The fact that I’m a professional writer registers with some of my students, but I try not to talk about it unless they ask because I want to keep the focus on them and their goals. My administration is very supportive in helping me balance teaching and writing, my colleagues are great, and a lot of them are or were professionals in their content areas. In our department alone, we have an education professor who has also recently published a book, a teacher who runs a very popular teaching web site, one who used to head a theater company, one who is a playwright…we tend to just celebrate the latest success, whosever it is.