Smile, you're under video surveillance

This semester, I’m asking my first-year writing students to do something I’ve never asked my students to do before. At the end of class on Thursdays, I’m asking them to write me a private journal entry about a weekly win: one thing, big or small, that happened over the course of the week that made them happy.

Hibiscus bracts after blooms

I often ask students to write something for me at the end of class. Usually, that bit of writing is related to whatever we did in class that day: what, for example, was the clearest or most helpful thing they’ll take from a given class, and what was still confusing or unclear? But this semester, I’ve decided to ask my students to “accentuate the positive” by keeping a weekly log of things that have gone well.

It’s an idea I stole from a story I heard on NPR this summer. A radio host somewhere–already, I’ve forgotten the details–set up a voicemail line where listeners could share things that went well the previous week. Each week, the host selected several voicemails to play on the air, and the result was wonderful, with kids sharing what they learned at school, parents bragging about their kids’ Little League games, and people from all walks of life sharing small victories, random acts of kindness, and other assorted reasons to say “Hooray.”

Crabapples

College is stressful in part because there are so many opportunities to mess up. We’re five weeks into the new school year, and already my students are feeling the uphill slog of a long semester. When you’re a new college student, everything is alien and confusing, and the pressure to succeed is high. With so many chances to do something wrong, it’s a relief to remember there are some things that go well, end happily, and run smoothly.

Hibiscus buds.

The weekly wins my students have shared with me so far this semester have run the gamut. I’ve heard about aced quizzes, completed homework assignments, and extended assignment deadlines. One student was thrilled to have gotten the phone number of a secret crush; another was excited to have talked on the phone with a little sibling. Yesterday, many of my students were happy to be heading home for a three-day weekend: a chance to see the friends, family, and pets they’ve missed these past five weeks, and an opportunity to sleep in their own bed, enjoy some home cooking, and otherwise enjoy a break from the academic grind.

When I see my students in class on Tuesday morning, we’ll start our next writing assignment: as soon as you’ve grown comfortable with one skill, it’s time to move onto the next. Given the continual challenges of the academic semester, sometimes it’s a relief to focus on small successes rather than the challenges that still lie ahead.

Fallen in fall

Last night, a man with at least eight rifles opened fire on an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas, NV. At last count, 58 people were killed and over 500 injured: the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Fallen

In his inaugural address, President Trump promised an end to “American carnage.” He was referring, presumably, to threats from outside: travelers who can be banned, immigrants who can be blocked with a wall, and dreamers who can be deported. But who or what can protect us from home-grown terrorists who can easily inflict mass carnage because owning a gun is the one right Republicans believe to be inviolable?

Slouched

Since the President’s inauguration, many of our constitutional rights have been under siege. Voting rights are under attack because of baseless claims that millions voted illegally, and the right to peaceful protest is under attack because a football player quietly kneeling is more offensive to some than a white supremacist ramming his car into a crowd. Healthcare, we are reminded by an administration who has tried time and again to take it away, is not a right; this very weekend, in fact, the Trump administration let the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) die a quiet death, endangering the coverage of nine million children.

Dead or only sleeping?

While the first and fifteenth amendments come repeatedly under fire, the second amendment alone is sacred and unquestioned. Because literalists argue the constitutional right to bear arms means individuals have the inalienable right to amass as many high-capacity killing machines as they’d like without the common-sense controls we enforce on everything from cars to cold medicine, the rest of us no longer have the right to feel safe at an outdoor concert, nightclub, movie theater, elementary school, restaurant, college classroom, softball game, or Bible study. We no longer need extremists from abroad to cross our borders to unleash mayhem: we here at home are doing it ourselves, with weapons both Trump and the Republicans refuse to control.

Cooperative subject

Americans are very good at mobilizing against external threats. We rain down bombs and missiles, we strengthen and threaten to lock down our borders, and we ruefully relinquish personal freedoms in the name of public safety. (Remember the days when you could board a plane without taking off your shoes, limiting your liquids, or tolerating invasive scans and pat-downs of your person?) But when the inflicter of carnage is an American with a gun, we fold our hands and shrug our shoulders, earnestly but not convincingly at a loss for what to do. When the killer of many is an American with a gun, our nation of great ideas and even greater thinkers is suddenly stumped.

Prone

Last night before gunfire erupted in Las Vegas, I read the chapter in Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir where she talks about meeting with mothers of children killed by gun violence or police brutality–the Mothers of the Movement–and how their heartrending stories led her to campaign for sane gun control. An overwhelming majority of Americans (including responsible gun owners) want reasonable gun regulations, but the National Rifle Association shuts down such legislation at every turn, pouring money into attack ads against Clinton in 2016 and preventing any progress toward gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. There is no way the NRA and its members would let Democrats like Clinton, Obama, or even Gabby Gifford make any headway toward sane gun control laws, and this means President Trump now faces a unique opportunity for bold leadership.

Slain

When Democrats even whisper the words “gun control,” gun owners fly into a panic, but these same gun owners trust Trump to protect their second amendment rights. If Trump were to advocate for common-sense legislation that would protect responsible gun owners while taking guns out of the hands of madmen, would Trump’s base trust him to thread that political needle?

If Trump is as wealthy as he claims, he has no need for the NRA’s deep pockets, and if it’s true that diehard loyalists would stand by him even if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone (as Trump himself once claimed), now is a perfect opportunity for the President to prove his leadership mettle. If Trump were at least as brave as Hillary in standing up to the NRA, he could prove himself even better than Obama in brokering a gun control deal the Democrats could only dream of. It’s a longshot, but if the President wants to end American carnage, he has to protect Americans from every source of danger, not only ones located abroad.

I shot (and previously blogged) the photos illustrating today’s post in November, 2013, when Laura Ford’s “Armour Boys” were on display at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA.

Aster

Already it’s almost October, a month or so into my first-year students’ brand new college careers. Whereas my friends with children get to watch those children grow up, I see something different. Every year, I watch batch after batch of young women and men beginning and beginning and beginning again. Every fall semester, I get older, but every fall semester, my incoming first-years are just as young and tender as they ever were, earnestly asking where their classes meet, where the campus shuttle bus stop is, or where on campus they can hang out in between classes.

Autumn mushrooms.

After more than 20 years as a college instructor, I’ve learned that teaching first-year students is only partly about teaching. One of my colleagues refers to first-year writing as “Self Confidence 101,” and she’s only partly joking. First-year writing instructors encounter students right when they are their most vulnerable: we’re the ones who hear about roommate troubles, bouts of homesickness, and long-distance breakups. Few of us went into teaching to become confidants or counselors, but by default this seems to go with the territory.

Pokeweed berries

“Emotional labor” is the official word for this kind of tending, and it is both a thankless and essential job. I’m currently reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened, and she talks about emotional labor in both the private and public spheres:

[Emotional labor] describes all the unpaid, often unseen work that people–overwhelmingly women–perform to keep their families and workplaces humming along. Organizing office birthday parties. Arranging the kids’ summer camp. Coordinating visits with in-laws. Helping the new employee feel welcome and included. The list is endless: all the little details without which life would devolve into chaos and misery. Not all women take on these tasks, and that’s fine, and some men do, and I salute them–but it’s largely women’s work. Finally, someone thought to name it. (pp. 132-133)

Rainy day mums outside @traderjoes

Clinton describes how emotional labor works in the political world: someone has to pour the coffee, organize the meeting, or be the first to reach across the aisle. “It’s often women who handle constituent outreach, answering phones and responding to letters and emails,” Clinton observes, and she notes it’s often “women [who] make those calls and write those letters to Congress” (p. 134). It’s not that women necessarily care more about their families, workplaces, or countries than men do; it’s that women have been conditioned to be caregivers. “We’re not just the designated worriers in our families,” Clinton argues, “we’re also the designated worriers for our country” (p. 134).

Sprouted after Jose, on an outcrop of white quartz.

What Clinton has observed as a public servant, I’ve lived in academia. Someone has to notice (and worry) when a student starts missing classes, looks depressed, or fails to submit assignments. Someone has to show up, pay attention, and actually mean it when asking a student “How are you?”

Emotional labor has traditionally been women’s work; traditionally, emotional labor has been undervalued. But while the big and bombastic make grand moves on the global stage, I sometimes think the quiet, overlooked work of emotional labor is the only thing holding the world together.

National anthem

A quick search of my Flickr photostream shows I have dozens of photos of the national anthem being played or sung at various sporting events J and I have attended over the years. Snapping a photo during the anthem is easy, photographically speaking. Everyone is standing still, with players, coaches, referees, and fans alike lined up in orderly rows. It’s a moment of collective calm before the scrum of play erupts: a moment for both sides to share a moment of civility.

Anthem

Today my Facebook feed has been filled with people angrily facing off like players on opposing teams. To some, the act of taking a knee during the anthem is a sacrilegious act; to others, it’s a constitutionally protected form of protest. What I find intriguing is the very nature of kneeling itself. When Tim Tebow knelt in prayer on the field, he was hailed as a hero. Isn’t kneeling in protest its own kind of prayer: a plea to God or the Powers That Be for justice and sweet relief?

Anthem

Today as I saw team after team making a collective statement in response to the President’s suggestion that kneeling players should be fired–some players kneeling, others standing with locked arms, and others staying in the locker room, refusing to become political pawns–I didn’t see any disrespect toward the flag or what it represents. Kneeling isn’t an act of disrespect: it’s an act of reverence. Would anyone be offended if dozens of football players dropped to their knees to pray for our divided country? Given the state of that country, shouldn’t we all be on our knees, praying without ceasing?

Anthem

What I found most striking about today’s collective protests wasn’t the protest but the collectiveness. When the President said individual players should be fired for protesting, teammates across the league responded the way good teammates should: “If you fire any one of us, you’d better fire all of us.” This kind of team spirit is precisely what the flag represents: out of many, one. Standing during the anthem (or posting angry memes on Facebook) is easy. Working together as a team despite our differences is much more difficult.

Cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)

Last spring, a colleague flummoxed me with a perfectly innocuous question: “Do you work on your own writing?” This is a seemingly straightforward question, one deserving of a simple “yes” or “no,” but it left me stammering. What does it mean, exactly, to work on “your own writing”? Of the various sorts of writing I do, which one is actually “mine,” what exactly counts as “writing”?

Asters

As a professor, I should be working on formal academic scholarship; if I ever were to join the ranks of tenure-track faculty, I’d need to hop on the merry-go-round known as Publish-or-Perish. But apart from a few book reviews, I stopped producing formal academic writing when I finished my dissertation more than a decade ago, and I remain deeply conflicted about the genre.

Secret garden

Part of the reason it took me so long to finish my dissertation was the identity crisis I experienced halfway through, when I realized I didn’t want write about Thoreau, I wanted to write like Thoreau. I’ve never reconciled the tension I feel between academic writing (the kind of writing I should be doing to advance my career) and personal essay-writing (the kind of writing I scribble in private notebooks and share on-blog). There’s the kind of writing I like to do, then there is the kind of writing I “should” be doing, and I haven’t figured out a way to build a bridge between one and the other.

Viewing through

Years ago, another teaching colleague mentioned that he reads my blog, and his voice was tinged with envy. “You can write about anything you want,” he observed, and again I wasn’t sure how to respond. Yes, I can write about anything I want, and that is exactly what keeps me writing…but my blog writing doesn’t bring any professional benefit. My blog serves as my own creative outlet, and being able to write about a variety of topics–whatever is on my mind on any given day–is a source of great personal satisfaction. But while that teaching colleague has moved onto a permanent full-time position, I continue to piece together a string of temporary “visiting” appointments. I can write whatever I want, but that writing isn’t something I’ve been able to leverage toward lasting full-time employment.

Silvered

So what counts, exactly, as “writing,” and which writing counts as “my own”? The words I write in my journal are both theoretically and practically my own, as no one other than me sees them. The words I revise and then post here are my own as well: I write them for no one else’s benefit, nobody compensates me for them, and I share them simply to satisfy my own creative itch. My blog-essays, then, should most definitely count as “my own writing,” so why was I so reluctant to admit that aloud in response to my colleague’s question?

Moss steps

I have never felt judgement from my colleagues because I write blog essays instead of academic articles: in all honesty, most of my colleagues are too busy to follow what I do in my off-hours, just as I am too busy to follow what they do in theirs. But even in the absence of external judgement, it’s entirely possible to feel self-generated guilt. Why am I wasting my time, my inner-critic questions, working on writing that does nothing more than make me happy? Given the perpetually temporary and thus tenuous state of my employment status, why aren’t I toiling away at academic projects: the kind of writing that could lead to more gainful employment?

Silvery

For better or worse, the only way I know how to write is by following my curiosity: my scribbling pen is like an unleashed dog that runs and wanders where it will. I share on my blog the kinds of things I enjoy reading: one way of understanding my blog, in fact, is to see it as a repository of my own intellectual interests, a personal cabinet of curiosities.

In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson defined “genius” as the belief “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” I don’t presume to know the hearts of all men, but I know what I like, and in writing about those things, I trust that there are others, somewhere, who are interested as well.

Takeoff

Today’s weather is the same as it was sixteen years ago today: brisk and beautiful, with turquoise-blue skies. I’m not sure if there is a meteorological reason why September skies are often so deeply, vividly blue, but that’s how the sky was on September 11, 2001.

Logan Airport flyby

Sixteen years ago, I was living in Hillsborough, NH with my then-husband, and September 11 was a Tuesday. I’d just started teaching at Keene State College, but I didn’t teach on Tuesdays that semester. Instead, I was working a part-time temporary job at a publishing company in Portsmouth, NH, about an hour and a half away from home.

Jet Blue on blue

That morning’s drive to Portsmouth was largely uneventful, but there had been a car crash on the stretch of highway between Concord and Portsmouth, and police had blocked the road and detoured traffic. I remember driving on small, rural roads through communities I’d never visited before. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS devices, and I was genuinely worried I’d get lost trying to find my way to work, but the day was so lovely, I almost didn’t mind.

Overhead

When I got to work, I learned someone had died in that crash: the first of the day’s many tragedies. But since I didn’t know the person who had died, I quietly settled into the cubicle of one of the of two women on maternity leave I’d been filling in for that summer. While I was working, someone sent out an inter-office email saying the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane, and I quickly skimmed and deleted the email. Since I was juggling this temp job with the new school year at Keene State, I had a lot of work to do that day, so I continued working without checking CNN or turning on the radio.

Wild blue yonder

The same thing happened when another email came around saying the second World Trade Tower had been hit: I read the email and kept working. I hadn’t seen any photos or videos of the attack, so I imagined a scary but somehow explicable accident wherein two planes had gone off track, clipping a wing against one and then a second skyscraper. Because I was busy, I was able to compartmentalize the news: something bad was happening in New York, but I was in Portsmouth, and I had a tall pile of work to do. I was probably the last worker in my office–the last person in America–to realize the gravity of what had happened.

Fly-by

I wasn’t until lunchtime that I fully realized what was happening. I was supposed to attend a staff meeting, but everyone was so upset by the news from New York, several coworkers and I went for a quick walk instead. It was an attempt to dissipate some nervous energy on a clear autumn day that was too beautiful to spend inside. When we got back to the office, I finally saw my first glimpse of the attack.

Overhead

A throng of co-workers was crammed into a single cubicle, huddling around a computer to watch CNN, and that was when I saw for the first time the incessant replay of planes crashing and buildings falling. Like countless others before me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene out of a movie, not something actually happening under an impossibly blue umbrella of September skies.

Overhead

Not long after my co-workers and I stood slack-jawed and silent around a single computer, our boss sent us home for the day: my co-workers to nearby homes and loved ones, and me to a lonely hour-and-a-half drive. The roads between Portsmouth and Hillborough were nearly empty, and I listened to the news on NPR while scouring the skies for planes. It’s been sixteen years since I took that long, lonely drive, and I still hold my breath whenever I see a distant plane fly anywhere near a city skyline, waiting to make sure it flies behind each silhouetted skyscraper rather than directly through.

New school for the new school year

Today on our way home from lunch, J and I walked past Newton’s brand-new Zervas Elementary School. Since Zervas is within walking distance of our house, we’ve watched its construction all summer, just as we’d watched the demolition of the old building last year.

Brand new playground

Curious to see the inside of this brand-new school, J and I peered through windows at the gym, cafeteria, lobby, principal’s office, and one festive-looking classroom. We obviously weren’t the first to have done this, as the new windows were already smudged with finger- and nose-prints from other curious passersby.

Newly built

Although J and I don’t have kids, Zervas is “our” school insofar as it’s in our neighborhood, and we’d voted “yes” to the tax increase that funded its construction. Anything that makes a neighborhood more desirable, like a new school, improves the lives and property values of all residents, so J and I were happy to support that.

Zervas sits on a larger corner lot with two separate playgrounds, an octagonal climbing structure, and a grassy field for soccer or other outdoor games. Today as J and I walked around the grounds, we saw several older kids on bikes peering into windows while a handful of parents watched their preschool children try out the new swings and slides. At the start of a new school year, there’s nothing more alluring than a new school even if you’re the wrong age to attend it.