Thursday, October 29, 2009

Building the Big Love

And I know what love can do.
Yes I know what hearts can do.
The big love -- is taking the wheel,
The big love -- goes head over heels,
The big lust-- bring it into the small world,
The bigger, the better-- Big love

Waiting to catch the big one,
Head over heels, the big one
Bring it into the small world.
I'm building the big big love,
I'm building the big big love.

It has to be a big thing.
It's bringing me to my knees.
Has to be a big thing, big thing,
ya know what I'm saying...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Visual Rhetoric

My master's thesis (or master's project, depending on who you ask and on what day):
Image courtesy of

Constructed from three different papers I've written, it is roughly pasted together connections built from reading, research and classroom experiences.

It will probably walk funny, question its origins and perhaps even try to kill me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Further in You Go

Photo courtesy of
It's like that opening scene from The Grinch (2000), when the camera heads toward a snowflake then inside, deeper and deeper to a whole universe and a little planet and a little town, Whoville, and the little house of Cindy Lou Who.

That's what research is like.

You think you've gotten down to the essence of a subject, but when you look closely you see there are whole worlds inside that; look a little more closely, even more worlds.

"''It's certainly,' Smoky said, remembering the guidebook, 'en extensive estate.'
'The further in you go, the bigger it gets,' said Hannah Noon."
--John Crowley,
Little, Big (1981)

"'I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger. The further in you go, the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until at the center point, it is infinite. Or at least very, very large.' He took a sip of water.'"
-- John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

"'Of course, Daughter of Eve,' said the Faun. 'The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.'"
--C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle (1956)

I despair of ever being finished. Every time I work, I discover something new.

Today, I discovered systemic functional linguistics, in which M.A. K Halliday articulates and justifies everything I was struggling, without the proper language, to say.

Exciting to discover a new area of research (old, actually, 1989), like finding lost treasure. But disturbing too: Does this mean what I am struggling to say has been said before, so why bother?

Is my purpose to say something new or to learn and get out of grad school and go teach?

And why didn't the linguists who have read my drafts not mention systemic functional linguistics? Why did they let me struggle with awkward, ill-defined terms like "sociolinguistic approach" (or is that the same thing and now I've finally stumbled on the right body of research?) and "socioliteracy."

Of course, I am juxtaposing Halliday's writing against several other more modern things, perhaps in a fresh new way. I just don't know.

Then again, I was told to define discourse, which seemed like an odd request at the time, like being asked to define academia. Maybe I was being subtly pointed in the right direction? This is all so esoteric. Like feeling around in the dark.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Insomnia & Fairy Tales

Image from the film, Photographing Fairies, courtesy of
I used to be the most luxurious sleeper. I was like the character, Sophie, in my favorite book, Little, Big (John Crowley)/ (Read Chapter One here, if you're interested.)

Sophie was a dreamy person who luxuriated in sleep, spent more time asleep than awake, was forever falling asleep or catnapping, and dreaming interesting dreams.
"Ophelia" by John William Waterhouse, image courtesy of
I was like that. I had a rich dream life. I loved to sleep.

Sophie slept so hard that faeries were able to sneak into her room one night and steal her baby, Lilac, leaving a changeling in its place. After that, of course, Sophie's sleep was stolen also.

I feel my sleep has been stolen as well.

I write this to you at 2 o'clock in the morning, after unsuccessful tries at falling asleep. My bed is comfortable and welcoming, but all the down comforters and feather pillows in the world will not quiet my mind.

So instead I will tell you about Little, Big, a book I judged by its cover, which in 1987 looked like this, green and sort of psychedelic and intriguing:
I reread Little, Big more than once during a magical part of my own life. It's impossible now to sort out the impressions of my Bohemian life in Santa Cruz from the things I read in Little, Big, impossible to tell which came first.

If you buy it from bookstores now, it looks like this:
It's about this family that lives on the threshold between worlds. Quite by accident, their house is a doorway between faerieland and our ordinary world.
The book follows several generations of family members who interact with the faeries in different ways. The children play with them, the teenagers seek their advice, the young adults strike treacherous bargains with them.

One man writes children's stories about them, another spends his time trying to capture them on film, while an old woman reads messages from them in a deck of special cards.

I am not a particular fan of faeries, or Elementals as they are obliquely called in the book. What entranced me about Little, Big are the images Crowley paints with his artful language.

Image courtesy of
The images in Little, Big are both familiar and mythical at the same time. The author describes a marbled-cover notebook, a roadmap ("confetti-colored"), a peacock wicker chair, a brown cigarette and a swan-shaped boat--as if everything is an archetype. The City, for example. The Tale, for another.

Great-aunt Cloud's peacock chair, image courtesy of
Image courtesy of
Unexpected words pop up in descriptions of ordinary things:
"The gregarious weeds that frequent roadsides, dusty, thick and blowsy, friend to man and traffic, nodded from fence and ditch by the way."

"The kitchen was papered with baskets of impossibly luscious fruit, blue grapes and russet apples and cleft peaches that protruded like bottoms from the harvest."

The house the family lives in, Edgewood, is intriguing to say the least. There is, for example, an Imaginary Bedroom and a Back Front.
"Hidden Cities" by Peter Milton who illustrated a fancy recent edition of Little, Big. Image courtesy of

The Cathedral Bathroom always captured my imagination: a bathroom with great stained glass windows, where rays of colored sunlight would cast themselves on steam rising from a hot bath.
This guy Ricky Boscarino has a similar idea with his Luna Parc bathrooms, image courtesy of

I love the way Crowley writes, although I never have found the same satisfaction in any of his other books, which are a little vague and indistinct (except Engine Summer, out of print now, is pretty damn wonderful. I'll tell you all about it sometime).
Crowley, as a writer, infuses ordinariness with richness in a way I don't know how to describe or emulate. Now that I have studied language analysis, I need to read Little, Big again, so I can read it like a writer and discover exactly what it is he does to produce this effect.
In one section of the book, the whole household of Edgewood is asleep and we, the readers, get to peek into their dreams:
"While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers.

"Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart.

"Dr. Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: 'There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.' This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn't be able to remember a word of it, try as he might.

"Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn't in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said 'Years.'"
If there were ever a book I wish to see turned to film it's this one. I want to see these things, these characters, these places, come to life.

But now that I've talk about them, envisioned them in my imagination, and now that it's coming on 3 in the morning, maybe I can go to sleep and dream of Daily Alice and Smoky, Auberon and Sylvie, Lilac, Violet and Cloud.
"A Fairy Tale" by Arthur Wardle , image courtesy of

Other covers
Little, Big has had over the years. Which one would draw you in?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Children Teach You How to Raise Children

With my two fine nearly grown sons earlier this summer.

A friend posted the following on Facebook recently and I wanted to share it. I tracked down the author's name, Anne Quindlen. Enjoy!
"Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay."

"On Raising Children"
By Anna Quindlen

If not for the photographs, I might have a hard time believing they ever existed-- the pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the black-button eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe above her chin.

All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast.

Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like.

Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves.

Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.
Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach, T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early childhood education, all grown obsolete.

Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used.

But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories.

What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations -- what they taught me was that they couldn't really teach me very much at all.
Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything.

One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout. One boy is toilet trained at 3, his brother at 2.

When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome.

To a new parent, this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow.

I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton's wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active.

I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane?

Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk, too.
Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame.

The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs.

The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp.

The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, "What did you get wrong?" (She insisted I include that.)

The time I ordered food at the McDonald's drive- through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons...What was I thinking?
But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this: I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs.

There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1.

And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night.

I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting-it-done a little less.
My two wonderful sons back in 1993.

Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't, what was me and what was simply life.

When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I'd done.

Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.

The books said to be relaxed, and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out.

I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity.

That's what the books never told me.

I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.
My eldest son with his new baby daughter, photo taken last weekend.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nine Realizations

Baby Anora holds her papa's finger

The dust is settling after the mad rush of moving, followed by having Swine Flu (!) and trying to balance that with fulfilling all my obligations. And I have come to some important realizations.

#1: H1N1 is something to be reckoned with.

Swine Flu is virulent. It knocked me and my legendary immune system right down. I was very sick from Sunday to Saturday, and I still have a gravelly voice like Demi Moore.

I even went to the health center at the university in case I was getting a secondary infection; this flu operates in little waves during which you think you're better so you do something then have a horrible relapse. Happily, I learned I don't have bronchitis or anything, and I am on the mend.

I'd felt as if I were fighting it for three weeks or more. Every Saturday, when I might have had a chance to go see my little granddaughter, I felt as if I were coming down with something. Knowing Swine Flu was on campus, I dared not bring it to new little Anora, who hasn't developed antibodies yet.

#2: My children need me.

Not seeing the kids has been my heartache, because I want to be a part of my son's growing family; I want to see how they're adjusting, to share this experience with them; and most importantly, to help out where I can, to ease their burden somehow.

I get to see them tomorrow!! I promise to take pictures.

#3: I love student conferences.

It's been a crazy week, working every moment on student conferences, in addition to my usual workload.

My students are required to have a 15 minute conference with me about their first essay; it's a mandatory conference. It's also my chance to model the kind of feedback I want them to give to one another.

It was a heck of a lot of work. It takes a long time to read and respond to each essay, just to prepare myself for the conference. Then there is a very focused 15 minutes, sitting across the table from each one of these interesting young adults and helping them develop their ideas.

Work-intensive though this is, I do believe it's my favorite part of my job.

#4: Teaching is exciting.

Teaching class last night was a very different experience, standing in front of 25 people I know, teaching to them as a group of individuals.

The sort of discussion that took place in my classroom yesterday was worthy of a grad school classroom. This is exciting to experience with people who are only on their seventh week of college ever.

#5: My life is very busy.

Today was not a day off, but I only had to work half a day, attending a meeting of composition teachers from 8 to noon. So the afternoon was available for taking care of neglected chores and obligations.

#6: Laundromats let you knock out in 2 hours what used to take half the day.

To this meeting and all these subsequent errands, I had to wear an outfit consisting of my least favorite clothes. So I spent part of my afternoon at the laundromat, which will now be a regular part of my life since the new apartment doesn't have hookups.

I dealt with this chore handily, quickly and in an organized fashion (not always my modus operandus).

I went to the laundromat in Arcata by the Coffee Break, so there was a delicious iced chai in the deal, and I could check my email while the clothes washed.

And while they dried, I cleaned out my jumbly messy car which was looking as if perhaps I lived in it.

#7: Something's gotta give.

I had time to think during all this, and I came to some important realizations, most notably, I am doing too much and something has to give. So far, it has been my personal and social life, but apparently even that sacrifice is not enough.

It's not going to be teaching, because I'm committed.

It's not going to be working, because I have to survive.

It's not going to be parenting, because my children need me.

What's left are my two grad school commitments: my literature class and my master's project.

I can complete the lit class requirements, but the master's project is more than I can do right now.

#8: I won't graduate until May anyway.

The December deadline is oppressive and shadowing all my present experiences.

What I need are deadlines I can live with, so I am going to ask my adviser about a revised schedule in which I finish in May, when my commencement ceremony is scheduled.

#9: A manageable life is worth living.

Once I made this decision, the rightness of it literally made me cry.

I can actually do. This I might actually succeed at. This makes my life seem manageable and worth living again.

Now let's hope my adviser will agree.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

When Authors Say It Better

Imagine this "tall, imposing woman" is, instead, barrel-chested and vigorous man, strutting into the room like he owns the place.

"Bowers opened the door of the reception room and a tall, imposing woman rustled in, bringing with her a glow of animation which pervaded the room as if half a dozen persons, all talking gaily, had come in instead of one.

"She was large, handsome, expansive, uncontrolled; one felt this the moment she crossed the threshold.

"She shone with care and cleanliness, mature vigor, unchallenged authority, gracious good-humour, and absolute confidence in her person, her powers, her position, and her way of life; a glowing, overwhelming self-satisfaction, only to be found where human society is young and strong and without yesterdays."

This passage is from Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I know this person, but as I said, it is a man. His humor is far from "gracious," but otherwise the description fits. I wonder if the rest of the story will provide insight if I keep reading.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Consumer Artiifacts

A long and rigorous two days of student conferences. I scheduled 15 minutes with each of my 25 students, to give them feedback on the polished draft of their consumer artifact analysis paper.

What fun to entertain their ideas, to take them seriously, to work with them until they reach a deeper significance in looking at their artifact.

Topics: makeup, cellphones, colored contacts, robots, Victoria's Secret bras, coffee, high heels, flip-flops, beer, footballs, diamonds, PINK sweats, wine, glowsticks, "Livestrong" bracelets, designer handbags, canoes, microphones, hamburgers.

How fun!

But oh, I am wiped out from all this thinking, all this reading, and all this talking.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Trouble with September

At last, I've reached the end of that trying month, September. Even with the blessings it brought (beautiful new granddaughter!), September was overwhelming, like a tsunami I was trying to surf.

I don't know how well I did, but at least I am still here.

We are entirely moved out of the house, which was a chore so monumental I can hardly describe it. It was more than just a move; it was a complete reconfiguration of a family. What was once a family is now fragmented, its members and their many possessions scattered in several directions.

It was more emotional than I expected, stranger, more difficult, more full of surprises.

A defining moment: My son's things all boxed up, my ex-husband's things loaded on a trailer and the house cleaned, it was time to say goodbye to my cat, Paris, who was about to be loaded into his carrier to go home with my ex.

I sat on the porch steps, with my great big cat in my arms and soaked his sleek black fur with tears, while Paris purred patiently, unaware it was goodbye.

This pain is Novocaine-numb and as mysterious as an iceberg; I don't even want to know what's under the surface.

On the bright side, my son is staying with me after all, so it turns out we're not as fragmented as it seemed. And the new apartment is coming together like a work of art; the final product will be a home. I'm comfortable already. And now that I'm finally online, work and school will be easier.

I am engaged in an epic battle with the flu, valiantly fighting it off, though it won briefly on Monday and is still not conquered yet.

I am afraid to visit my little granddaughter because there have been several confirmed cases of H1N1 on campus. Dammit.

She is 21 days old and I have only seen her once. Send me get-well wishes so I can see her Saturday. I really must see her.

Finally, the other trying thing about September is uncertainty about my chosen career. Teaching academic writing to university freshmen is in sharp contrast to teaching ESL to international students, who were motivated, mature and respectful.

I passionately loved teaching ESL over the summer; ESL is where my heart is. Surprise, surprise. I wish I had known this earlier so I could have added a TESL minor to my master's study.

Usually I have long-range vision about where I want to go and what I want to do, but I can't see beyond December. Finish the thesis, finish grad school.

Lingering heartbreak has me experiencing all these events as if I were watching them through a window on a rainy day. Unfortunately, something has happened to tarnish the golden memories that were supposed to sustain me through this difficult season.