Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z: Zealot (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

A card from a favorite game: Ascension
When we describe someone as a zealot, it's not usually a compliment. My imagination conjures up a picture of a wild-eyed, crazy-haired individual, proselytizing on the street with dubious coherence.

Enthusiasm is generally regarded as a good thing, but a person can go overboard, and zealots often do. Zealots are not content merely to love something with all their hearts, they want you to do so, too. They've got pamphlets and manifestos for you to read. They are evangelical.

Zealotry is often associated with religion or politics (which might actually be the same thing for some people). In any case, with big systems. Fanatic and cult are other words that you might hear tossed around with zealot. The suggestion being that zealots might be just this side of crazy.

In thinking about the word, I thought of Simon the Zealot. I'm hardly a Bible scholar, but I am drawn to Biblical narratives and Simon is interesting because I know so little about him. I remember his name from my foray into Christianity when I was fourteen or so.

He's one of the twelve. Different sources give me different reasons for his moniker. Some suggest that he is called zealot because he was a rigid adherent to Jewish law. Some that he was just really fervent in his following of Jesus. Others that he had been known as a political activist (zealot being a political designation) before signing on as an Apostle.

I wonder if the nickname was simply to distinguish him from other Simons, like I might say "Tall Michael" or "Bearded Michael" to indicate which of three men named Michael in the room I am indicating. Or was his zealotry his overriding feature? The first thing that others would notice about him?

His representation in the Bible is pretty much limited to the mentioning of his name in a list of apostles. He doesn't have any good lines or independent story lines. Whoever he was, what remains of him in history and legend is little more than this name, and, at least for me, curiosity.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y: Yield (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

When to stand your ground and when to yield. It's one of life's great questions.

It's a question we face hundreds of times a day, each time a conflict moment comes. And, if your life involves other people, there is bound to be conflict.

A person who always insists on having her way is in for trouble.  Then, again, so is a person who never insists on her rights. You can't live your life as a closed door anymore than you can live it as a doormat. In the extremes, neither is a viable position.

Either you end up like Dr. Suess's north-going Jax and south-going Jax, trapped in a standoff while the world whistles by you, or you're laying there wondering what just ran over you.

One of the characters in my current WIP struggles with this. Patricia O'Neill (of the, as yet, unpublished Going Through the Change and the, as yet, untitled sequel) likes to get her way. So much so that she tends to steamroll the people around her into doing what she wants. She's observed that many people are doormats, especially other women. All it takes is someone with a little force of will and the tide opens before her parting like the Red Sea. Patricia strides through in her designer suit, tossing a quip over her shoulder.

That is, until she meets Linda/Leonel Álvarez. Before her sudden transformation into a man, Linda would have been intimidated by a woman like Patricia. She would also have felt sorry for her. She's sure that someone that pushy must be terribly lonely. When the two try to work together to defeat the mad scientist who has messed up both their lives, they butt heads in a serious way. As they find their way through their new abilities and the problems that come with them, they find that they need each other. Linda learns to insist on taking the lead--at least when she's sure she's right, and Patricia learns to yield--at least when Linda might be right. It's the start of a beautiful friendship, as they say.

I've had such a wonderful time writing this friendship. The give and take has been exciting to shape. In fact, I want to get back to them right now. Patricia's gotten herself kidnapped and Linda/Leonel is trying to find her.  I can't wait to see what happens! (don't you love it when it's going so well you feel like you're just along for the ride?)

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Monday, April 28, 2014

My Writing Process

I've been invited to be a part of a blog tour. This blog tour is where writers and authors answer questions about their writing process. My fellow Magic Spreadsheet user and A-Z Blog Challenge writer Chad Clark posted his last week. Chad A. Clark is an independent author who specializes in genre fiction, horror and science fiction in particular. You can check out his blog at

What am I working on?

I'm working on three things right now. I like having multiple things going so there's always something I can make progress on.
  • The sequel to my superhero novel (Going Through the Change, not yet published). It doesn't yet have a title. Like the first novel, the plot centers around four menopausal women who developed superpowers after using products developed by a mad scientist. This time, the mad scientist herself is the one in need of rescue. If you'd like to meet one of my characters, she can be seen in this short story (Patricia Saves the Beauty Queen) published on FreedomFiction
  • A historical fiction novel with the working title Cold Spring. It's the story of two sisters growing up in rural Kentucky in the early twentieth century. It pulls loosely from some pretty dramatic personal family history, and has strong themes of sisterhood and the changing expectations for women in America over time. 
  • A collection of short stories with the working title Shadowhill. They are all weird tales, with a sort of Twilight Zone or Ray Bradbury feel, all set in a suburban neighborhood a lot like the one I live in. So far, I have five. I've had one of them accepted for publication recently. It will come out in the inaugural issue of The New Accelerator, a magazine published for Apple's Newsstand. It's called "Lawn Wars" and features a man at war with his lawn--and a lawn at war with a man. 
On top of my works in progress, I also keep a blog. I'm usually a once-a-week-or-so poster, but I'm just finishing the A to Z blogging challenge, which had me writing a post nearly every day in April. Whew! It was fun, but I'll be happy to blog less often and have more time for what I consider my "real" work. 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I write in two distinct genres.

My literary fiction (His Other Mother, unpublished--a scene can be read here; and Cold Spring, unfinished) features female characters trying to find their way in the worlds they live in, and learning to overcome the obstacles in their way. They may or may not be successful. It's the struggle that interests me, the moral ambiguities.

My speculative fiction (Going Through the Change, unpublished; its untitled sequel, unfinished; the short stories in Shadowhill) is unlike a lot of what I read elsewhere in that it features strong female characters over thirty, living in small, ordinary places. So, not urban and not young.

Why do I write what I do?

The more I write, the more I realize that writing is my therapy. It's how I deal with all my issues. I realized halfway through the writing of His Other Mother, for example, that I was working out my relationship issues and analyzing what went wrong in my first marriage. It also let me work out some of my worries about mental health and mothering. I didn't realize the depth of my issues with the American medical system until I created Dr. Liu for Going Through the Change.

So, I'd say I write what I do to deal with whatever is bothering me at the time. 

How does your writing process work?

I always write on my Apple laptop with the cool superhero decals on the keyboard while sitting at my dining room table, often with a warm drink (caffeinated or not depending on time of day). I make paper notes in bound books or pieces of scrap paper that I tack to an art banner in my dining room so I won't lose them. Novels are written in Scrivener. Short stories, poems, and essays are written in Word. 

I always begin as a pantser. I have some piece of an idea and I just sit down and write from there for a while. I write this way until I hit my first stall. That might be one scene or several chapters. 

Then, I go back and look at what I've done and think about where it could go from there. I take long walks and think. I talk to my husband, daughter, sister and mother (my favorite sounding boards for this early stage). I make a lot of charts and graphs. I do a lot of reading either of work in the same genre or of research materials that apply. 

Then, I try to write an ending. It really helps structure the rest of what I do if I know where I think this is going. Often, the ending changes between this early draft and actually arriving there in the narrative, but it still gives me a ballpark and helps keep me on track. Then, I start writing from where I left off in the first part and try to get to the ending. 

I'm a part of a writing critique group called WIP (works in progress). I joke that it should be called WHIP for the beatings they administer, but truly, they are all worth their weights in gold. We share excerpts of our works in progress, and ask questions and give reactions and advice that I find invaluable to my process. They also serves as my first round beta readers when I have a complete draft I feel good about. 

I'm a mother and a teacher, so my writing time is limited. If I can get out of school early enough, I can write from 4:00-5:00 before I have to pick up my kids from their after school stuff. If I can't, I can write from 8:00 (littlest kid's bedtime) until I fall asleep, to the extent that the teenager, dog, husband, and sad excuse for a social life allow. 

About a year ago, I committed to a daily writing habit, using a tool called the Magic Spreadsheet (you can find them on Facebook).  Basically, it's a gamification system and a support group.  You get points for meeting your daily word count, which then eventually up your level and your expected daily word count. This was vital to me finally finishing some things. I started at 250 words per day, and am now at 600 words per day as my minimum. That adds up into a substantial piece of work pretty quickly. It's been just over a year, and I've written over 300,000 words that way, one little chunk at a time. That's probably why my first novel took four years to write and the second only took about six months. 

Thanks for reading my post! You can read the posts of some of my writing friends next week: 

Holli Moncrieff is a world-traveling kickboxing writer with a taste for adventure and a great love for animals. She blogs about how to live a life less ordinary at

Marlene Moss writes young adult and middle grade novels, based in our reality, but with a fantasy or scifi twist. Her education is in physics, which, historically has given onlookers a sense of hte fantastic. She lives in Colorado and trains and compete endurance horses--which explains the title of her blog--On Writing and Riding. Her current WIP is called MIGHTY MIKE AND THE INTERGALACTIC CANDY DISPENSER and is about a boy who has to save the future of space-flight by helping an alien catalog the potential results of humans visiting other planets. Sounds boring? Each test candy gives Mike a temporary superpower!

Colin D. Smith is an unpublished writer and blogger who has written a few novels, some novellas, and a lot of flash fiction. He hopes to be in the query trenches soon with his latest story about a teenage alien stuck in Victorian London.

X: Xenophobia (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I wrote earlier in this alphabet about mania and phobia words. Like many a future word-nerd, I went through a phase of being in love with these types of words as a child. I still think they are fascinating words.

Xenophobia is an especially interesting word. A good "X" word is hard to come by. Ask anyone who's ever try to do an alphabet theme.

Xenophobia comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning "strange," "foreigner," and φόβος (phobos), meaning "fear." So "fear of strangers."

To some degree, fear of strangers is a healthy thing. Don't we spend hours haranguing our children about the dangers represented by people we don't know? Stranger danger! 

But, a true xenophobe takes this pretty far.  Anyone who is unlike them is a cause for fear. That could
be people who have a different color of skin, lifestyle, style of dress, or just a different way of pronouncing words.  It's a very short step from here to outright hatred and persecution. 

So, that's the line we all have to learn to walk: between self-protective caution and bigotry. 

As a Spanish teacher, I am often faced with people who are standing on this line and trying to figure out where to stand. Kids who feel frustrated by language learning or are just parroting what they hear at home will complain that "they should all just speak English." 

That generic "they" or worse "you" is the first step towards ugly. When you can think and talk about people in generic terms like this, it's easy to think of them as less human. If you can think of people as less than human, then it's easier to abuse them. 

Us and Them is dangerous territory indeed. Tread lightly. 

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

W: Wendigo (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I first heard of the Wendigo was I was a college student in eastern Kentucky. I had a summer gig working for the college's public radio station and was sent to cover a storytelling festival. Storytelling festivals were big in Appalachia in the 1990s. I hope they still are because they are wonderful.

A woman came to the stage and told this story that had us all spellbound. What I remember about it now is the high, mournful voice she used as the voice of the wendigo. In her story, it was sad, tormented creature, forced to move at incredible speed that burned off its feet.  It was looking for rescue.

I've since run across this creature in other stories (it was even on Supernatural). It's not one of those myths that gets explored to death (like vampires and werewolves), but it's coming to the edge of more people's consciousness. The basic idea is that the wendigo was once human, but became transformed into a wendigo through madness. It's cannibalistic, and terrifying in that it attacks in the woods, in the dark, mostly unseen.

Like many of these myths, the power lies in what it has to say about what constitutes humanity and whether a person can lose her hold on humanity. In this case, the creature quite literally eats the flesh of other humans, but it could easily be a metaphor for all the ways we consume and feed on each other.

The wendigo doesn't have one set appearance. When I googled art for this blogpost, I saw many interpretations. There were large, muscular, wolf-like creatures; hybrid human and deer forms; even some that were just sort of ugly humans with sharp, bloody teeth.

The ones that chilled me the most were skeletally thin. This is especially awful when you consider their reputation for ravenous consumption of human flesh. It definitely makes you feel the cursed aspect--they eat, but they are still starving all the time.

They often are depicted with antlers of some kind, either looking like they are part tree or part deer. That makes a lot of sense for their invisibility in the forest. It would help them blend in as they wait for prey.

Extra long arms and fingers tipped with claw or talon-like nails (like Nosferatu) were also a common feature. There's something that really disturbs me about skewed proportions like that. It reminds me of the exaggerated shadows on my bedroom walls when I was a child, and what my child's imagination made of them.

(shiver) (shudder) (disturbed sound effect). Wendigos.

I think I'll stay out of the woods today.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Friday, April 25, 2014

V: Villain (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

A good villain can really make a story.

This seems especially true in Disney animated movies. I was watching Sleeping Beauty with the smaller monkey recently. Aurora or Briar Rose was completely uninteresting. The personality of a puddle. Even the monkey thought so.

But Maleficent? She was magnificent. Scary. Rocking that hat that makes it impossible to tell if she actually has horns or just an interesting sense of fashion.

Eleanor Audley did some amazing voicework in that character. And the animators understood the power of a good arched eyebrow.

Take Maleficent from the story and you have no story. Oddly enough, Aurora and Prince Phillip probably still end up married, since they were betrothed as children, but no one cares. There's no romance, no conflict, nothing to overcome. Two pretty, boring, rich people grow up easy and marry. That's no story.

This tradition of the villain making the story in Disney animated movies (especially the Princess ones) goes back to the first one. Snow White is so sweet she rots your teeth. It's the evil stepmother and her mirror that live in your memory. Cinderella pales next to her imposing and authoritarian stepmother. Alice is far less engaging on the screen than the mad Queen of Hearts. Captain Hook, even in his campiest moments, has more charisma than Wendy. And Ursula from the Little Mermaid!

In fact, I think we get all the way to Belle in 1991's Beauty and the Beast before we have a heroine who is interesting in any way. The heroines have gotten better as the years have gone on. Merida (from Brave) actually seems like someone I might like to know, and how refreshing that the romance storyline was secondary to the sisters' story in Frozen.

Come to think of it, Frozen didn't exactly have a villain. Hmmmm. Maybe there's hope for the heroines yet!
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U: Utopia (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

Dystopias have been in fashion here lately, especially in Young Adult literature. In my middle school, stories like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Matched are jumping off the library shelves.

It makes sense that dystopias would appeal to children this age. They are, after all, living in a world they didn't create, with systems in place that may or may not serve them well. Punishments seem draconian and capricious.

A really good dystopian story is often a story of disillusionment, of learning that the fairy land you thought you lived in isn't one. There's a dark underbelly you didn't know about. A cost. (Soylent Green is people!) Maybe the system was put in place with the best of intentions, but but it falls apart or becomes something very different than what was intended.

My heart says that there is no such thing as a utopia because there's no one way that will work for every citizen.  My utopia could be your personal hell.

Just for contrast, I went googling for utopian novels. The most recent one on a wikipedia list of such things was 1962 (Aldous Huxley's Island). There wasn't anything on the list I had read.

From another list, I found a few I had read: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Again, though, I run across this theme of utopia not being utopia for everyone.

Maybe that's why no one seems to write an unambiguous utopia these days.  We understand too well that it all depends on where you stand whether you see paradise or purgatory.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T: Tegucigalpa (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

Tegucigalpa and Guadalajara are two of my favorite Spanish words. They are place names, in particular the capitol city of Honduras and the largest city in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

I've yet to get to visit either place, but I love the words themselves.

I'm a long time student (and teacher) of Spanish. Since I first began to study the language as a college student, I was drawn to the sounds of it. It was foreign to my ear, but attractive, so flowing and lovely in its vowels. I think I like these two words for their vowels.

Teh-goo-see-gahl-pah. Say it. Doesn't it feel nice in your mouth? I understand that its originally a Nahuatl word, changed by Spanish influence into the form we know it in today. There's some serious disagreement about what the word means. Some say it refers to the silver in the hills; others say it means something about painted rocks or sharp stones.

But my love for the word is solely about the sound, not the meaning. Being able to pronounce it correctly requires a good facility with Spanish vowels. It has nearly all of them in the single word.

Guadalajara (gwah-dah-lah-har-ah), on the other hand, is all A's.  I think it's the J in that word that makes it
so much fun to say. Spanish J's sound like English H's. Add a flipped R into the end and you've got yourself one beautiful sound. It's almost a song just in the one word.

Obviously, I'm a word nerd. Why else would I choose to write 26 posts all about words I find evocative?

It's interesting to me that the Spanish words I love are all about sound, and the English words I love are mostly about meaning. Maybe it's because I'll always be a visitor in Spanish, but I'm a native in English. Maybe it's because my first literary love was poetry, which is all about sound. In any case, my love affair with words shows no sign of slowing down after all these years.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S: Seder (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

As I write this, Passover has just begun (though it will already be over when I post it).

Although I identify strongly with my Jewish heritage, I wasn't raised in the traditions of the faith. Observations of holy days and traditions . . . well, it's something I'm putting together as I go, trying to figure out what parts are important to me and which are not.

I've struggled in particular with the Passover Seder. It's one of the more specific and prescriptive holy days, with rules and expectations about what will be done. While I've found my own way to observe other holy days like Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Hannukah, I haven't found my way through this one.

In part, it's a problem with my work-life. Living a Jewish life is difficult when you work on a Christian calender.  I can only take so many unpaid days without failing in my financial responsibility to my family. This time of year is high pressure at school, our last chance to make a difference for our students before they face the trials of state testing. It's not a good time to miss school and hand my students to a substitute (not that there ever really is a good time for that). This makes it hard to prepare properly.

A Passover Seder is like a Thanksgiving dinner in a way. You can really build up a lot of pressure (even if it's all in your own mind) to do it "right." Because I don't feel I can do it right, I often don't do anything at all, even though that also feels wrong.

It's a great narrative, and the wonderful, deep and resonant stories are part of what draw me to this part of my heritage in the first place.It's a celebration of survival and freedom, and a lesson in our responsibilities to the world. It's a parable and a history all at once.

This year I am still the simple son. Maybe next year I will find my way.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Monday, April 21, 2014

R: Rapacious (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

When Rapunzel's mother was pregnant, she became rapacious with hunger for the rampion in her neighbor's garden, so the story goes. That ravenous hunger was arguably responsible for the whole sordid affair. It led to her husband's thievery, which angered the witch, which cost the couple their daughter.

The moral of the story: the appetites of women are dangerous.

Even in this generation, long past the first edition of Our Bodies Ourselves, and deeply entrenched in the pseudo-science of self esteem and positive body image, the appetites of women are under scrutiny.

Once, it was so unseemly for a woman to appear hungry that Scarlett O'Hara was asked to eat in her room before the party, where no men could see her stuffing her face.  We've come a long way; I eat at picnics alongside the men now. But there's still an expectation that women will be daintier than men, both in girth and in appetites.

This extends into other kinds of appetite as well. A woman described as rapacious might also be called devouring or insatiable, predatory. In other stories, a succubus. While men might find such a woman fascinating, in stories she is never the wife, but always the lover, the temptress who must be put aside for virtue's sake. She inflames the senses, but not the mind or heart.

It's not "ladylike" to want so much, so greedily, and let it be known.

Then again, a little research tells me that rampion, that plant so coveted by Rapunzel's mother, has medicinal effects for inflammation. Maybe the poor woman was just hoping to keep her swelling down. Pregnancy can give you some serious cankles.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q: Querulous (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

We sure do love to complain, don't we? We get together and kvetch about our jobs, bellyache about our children, or grump about the state of the world in general. Are humans just querulous by nature?

It's strange, because complaining often does really make us feel better--even if nothing changes.  Just "getting it off your chest" can help. There's a release in having expressed your discontent, in finding sympathy from others who agree. We call it venting, because that's what it really does. It releases the pressure and allows some fresh air inside the room.

Of course, it's hard to be around someone who is always complaining. The worst is a one-note complainer, always haranguing on the same wrong that's been done them. We have other words for these folks. Harsher ones, like whiner, moody, bad-tempered, bitter.

If you give in to a desire to complain all the time, you will find that people avoid you. We are all sensitive to the moods around us to some degree and too much time around negative people drags us down.

It's a lesson I have to remind myself of daily, especially at this time of year. I'm a teacher, and this is April. In the flow of a school year, this means that I'm exhausted from the previous months of work, and looking forward into TESTING SEASON (which might as well be called teacher-hunting season). If the testing process doesn't kill me itself by sucking all the joy and love out of the school building, the blame games that come with the results will bury me alive.

Still, it is April. There's plenty to be happy about. Spring has finally arrived. There are flowers blooming in my garden and new freckles on my daughters' cheeks. I'll have a birthday soon, and, even though that will mean I'm older, it will also mean that someone will make me cake and buy me gifts.

See? It's all in looking at the bright side.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Friday, April 18, 2014

P: Pulp (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I started my adult writing life as a bit of a literary snob. I studied creative writing at a small college. I wrote poetry. Formal poetry at that. I have an unpublished collection of sonnets called "Divorce Letters" for goodness sake.

But I also read a lot of "for fun" things. I loved old hard-boiled detective films and comic books. Tennessee Williams. In other words, over the top drama.

While I enjoyed reading and viewing that sort of thing, I never really considered writing it. It didn't fit my image of "real" writing. I was going to be Emily Dickinson (but, you know, with a boyfriend), not Mickey Spillane.

Then, I graduated. I got a job. I had kids. Even though I teach, I'm assuredly not in the ivory tower. It's a public middle school. The tower wasn't built of ivory in the first place and now it has holes and is held up by sticks we found in the yard. In other words, life got real. I had less time to read and write, though I still did both. I found that what I was reading was not what I was writing. That seemed weird.

Someone in my writing critique group talked about having fun while she wrote. I thought long and hard about that. Was I having fun?

I was writing a serious literary novel (His Other Mother, not yet published) about a woman dealing with fertility issues and schizophrenia. I felt good about it. I loved it. It felt important and real and good. But it was not fun. It was hard. So hard that I was having trouble getting to the ending. I knew it wasn't going to be happy and that was emotionally hard to do. I loved my main character, Sherry, and it was difficult to take her to the logical and necessary ending. I thought about Thomas Hardy, and how I'd read somewhere that he used to weep as he tortured his characters. But, his books are wonderful. They haunt me. I think Sherry could haunt people like that.

I decided that after I finished His Other Mother, I would be allowed to write a play piece. Something fun. So, I wrote Going Through the Change (also not yet published). It's a superhero novel about four menopausal women who develop incredible abilities through the machinations of a mad scientist. Writing it was still hard work--any good writing requires structure and rewriting and lots of real work--but it was fun. I laughed while I wrote.

So, now I'm working on two new novels. One is another serious literary novel, historical fiction this time. I think it will be called Cold Spring and it's about two sisters in rural America in the early twentieth century. The other is a sequel to Going Through the Change. I don't have a good title for it yet.

I'm finding that I need both sides of my literary brain. I need to lose myself in both tragedy and comedy. I need literary, beautiful language in my pulp and I need large, dramatic moments in my literature. The two kinds of writing aren't so completely separate after all, though their readerships are quite different.

I'm not sure what this means for my publishing life. My guess is a pseudonym for one or the other type of writing. But, for now, I'm pleased with the balance, letting both sides of my soul roll out onto the computer screen. So maybe I am Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy.  And maybe I'm Mickey Spillane, too . . .or Stan Lee. Just call me Emily Spillane. :-)
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O: Obsequious (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

You might think that Eddie Haskell is a remnant of the 50s, long gone. But I assure he is alive and well and walking middle school hallways today. His obsequious tone is heard every day, every time a young man finds himself in trouble with his teachers, who are mostly women old enough to be his mother.

Mostly, these boys are using the tone ironically. It's not that they really think the insincere praise will be believed. Instead, they hope that it will make the angry woman laugh, that she will charmed by them and her ire will be defused.

I  don't know how I feel about it, being the teacher on the receiving end.

On the one hand, I understand the value of humor in diffusing a tense situation.  But it rankles a little. There's something patronizing in it, something that says my anger is not to be taken seriously. I don't anger easily. I'm not quick to raise my voice. But, when I do, I'm serious about it. I mean it. I don't like the gender relations implied here.

Then I waffle, thinking of it from the kid's point of view. A middle school age boy draws a lot of ire in this world. He is loud, giggly, wiggly, distractible. He may look like a man, but he is still a child.

If you look at classroom interactions for children of this age, the boys get in more trouble than the girls. They don't play the game as well as the girls yet. If I heard my name said in annoyance and anger as often as I know some of these boys do, I would be looking for a way to diffuse the situation, too.

So, as in so many things, I try to take it slowly. To guide young men through respectful, appropriate interactions with the women in their lives, one conversation at a time. It's a big job. I hope I can handle it with the grace and humor that Mrs. Cleaver did.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N: Negligent (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

You should know better!

That's the difference between negligence and ordinary forgetfulness or carelessness. If I forget my keys or a book I was supposed to return, I was careless. If I forget to pick up my child, I'm negligent. Like yesterday's post about Mendacity. There are lies and there are LIES.  It's all a matter of scale.

In our litigious society, the standard for what can be construed as negligence is becoming distorted indeed. A fast food place is sued because someone burned herself on their coffee.  Was it really negligence that the coffee wasn't labeled as hot? After all, most of us expect coffee to be hot. Could we instead sue the mother of the coffee-burnt woman for not teaching her child that coffee might be hot?

That situation smacks of the ridiculous and is certainly very different than an employer who knows that something in the workplace environment will give the employees cancer, but chooses not to do anything about it.

This is one of the reasons that words are so important, and that hyperbole and other types of exaggeration can be dangerous. 

As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Let's keep a sense of proportion here, people.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M: Mendacity (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)


What a word! Most dictionaries define it simply as untruthfulness, but the connotations are stronger than that. This is no mere fib we're talking about, no white lie, no innocuous sin of omission. This is big, powerful and persuasive lying. Audacious lies that can break a person on the soul-level. Lies with evil intent.

Sheer mendacity.

Put this word with its common bed-mate and it's even worse. Sheer mendacity. Utter, unmitigated, unadulterated.

Or maybe it's sheer in the sense of steep and abrupt. Sheer like the drop from a cliff.

Or sheer as in transparent. Mendacity that doesn't even try to hide behind a screen. Entirely visible. Just pushing and pushing and seeing if anyone will step up and call it what it is.

Mendacity is a kind of lying that requires a real commitment. It's not for the shy or weak-willed. It takes a big personality.

That what makes the word work so well in the scene above. Tennessee Williams, writer extraordinaire of scenery-chewing emotionally harrowing speeches for his characters, loved the word, most famously used here in Cat on Hot Tin Roof.

His are not works of quiet emotion or subtlety. No, the pain is unbearable, the protest over the top.  The emotions are all at full volume. A woman can't be just upset in a play by Tennessee Williams. No, she's distraught. A man is not merely saddened, but devastated.

It's not melodrama. The anguish is quite real and honestly felt. But it is assuredly dramatic.

The lies are big, too. Big enough to hide a wealth of other dark emotions inside. Mendacious.

Thank you, Tennessee Williams, wordsmith extraordinaire.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Monday, April 14, 2014

L: Languid (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

Today was a beautiful spring day. The kind full of the promise summer and long hours full of fun and freedom. The kind I remember from childhood as long, lazy and languid. Lovely.

Of course, I was busy. I had life errands to run that kept me indoors too much of the day. Responsibilities to meet.

When I finally got out to enjoy the day, it was already early afternoon. I took my dog for a long walk, which is good for both of us, in heart and body.

On our walk, we passed a community green space, just one of those side of the road patches of grass and greenery that don't belong to any particular person. It was overgrown with wildflowers and pretty flowering weeds. I had this desire to lie down in the little patch of greenery and stare up at the clouds for a while. To maybe pick some of the weed-flowers and weave them into a crown.

I didn't do it. Neither of my kids were with me--kids are an excellent excuse to do things adults aren't supposed to do anymore. Plus, if I laid down in the side of the road, someone would call 911 thinking I'd had a heart attack or something. My dog would go nuts. It wouldn't end well. So, sadly, there were no flower crowns in my spring afternoon.

In the midst of what my mother terms "the busy years" with two school age children, a dog, a husband, a family, a career, and a little bit of social/personal life to manage, I miss languid days. Daydreaming. Not keeping track of time, knowing my mother would come fetch me when it was time to rest up for another long, flowing day the next day. Sometimes it sucks to be a grown-up.

Yesterday, my baby was seven. May she have many languid days in her future!

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K: Kleptomaniac (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I think I was an older kid or an earlier teenager when I first heard the word kleptomaniac.

I misheard it and thought is was Keptomaniac. That made sense to me since my parents were talking about a visitor to our home who had stolen some small items of mine. I think they were talking about what to say to the girl's parents and how to get them back. She had Kept my stuff, and I thought she was a Maniac.

Sometime later, I learned the real word. And that it was a real thing. That idea that you could have an uncontrollable compulsion to steal was new to me and fascinating. Even cooler that we had a word for that.

Then I learned there was other "manias." Tons of them in fact. It was almost as fascinating a list as the list of phobias I had been collecting.

Language can be so specific at times. Who knew that we needed a word that means "excessive desire to stay in bed"? (It's clinomania, BTW) I mean, isn't that just called adolescence?

For a while, I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist because I was so interested in these kinds of words to describe our obsessions, peccadilloes and predilections. But really, I was just in love with words.

I loved how some of these terms seemed so obvious as to be made up on the spot. Scribbleomania: obsession with scribbling? Really?

Others made me feel smart because I recognized the word parts. Xenomania (inordinate attachment to foreign things) and her sister xenophobia (unreasonable fear of foreign things).

A whole lot of the words were about sex in one way or another. Andromania, Cytheromania, Erotomania, and, of course, Nymphomania.

I'm still fascinated, both by the words and the obsessions they describe. All of our messy little quirks formalized in language. I guess that means I made a good choice in writing. I could wallow in this stuff all day.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Friday, April 11, 2014

J: Juxtapose (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)


Neat word. It totally looks made up. Pose, I get. "To place in a desired position." But "Juxta"? Probably excellent for Scrabble with J and X in the same word, but what a weird combination of letters! It sounds like the name of a Star Wars alien.


It's an interesting concept as well, the way a simple rearrangement of objects can make you perceive them very differently.

I can look at my almost seven year old girl and think, "Gosh, she's still so tiny." But then, if we juxtapose her position on the sofa, so she's next to her brand new baby cousin, she's going to seem huge. The contrast really changes your perspective.

It's an important concept in art and ideas as well.  What paintings are displayed next to what paintings makes a difference in how I view them, in what I notice. How I feel about what I'm reading or viewing is colored by whatever else I have recently viewed or read.

It's vital as a writer. A writer-friend of mine advises that writers need to read a variety of things. The magic happens, he says, when disparate ideas bump up against each other in your brain.

I agree.

My first novel came from this sort of juxtaposition. The idea came when that almost-seven-year-old was a newborn. We were at the supermarket. As many mothers do, I placed her carseat in the car, left the car door open and crossed the few feet to the cart corral, then returned. I had this unreasonable fear though that I would be hit by a car in the parking lot.

So, that was one idea.

I had been reading a bit about schizophrenia, hoping to better
understand what was going on with some people I care about.

That was another idea.

Someone else I care about was trying (unsuccesfully) to get pregnant. So, I was thinking and reading about fertility as well.

That was the third idea.

Juxtapose these ideas in Samantha's brain and press "blend." Voila! You have yourself a novel. His Other Mother (currently in its next round of publication limbo, being considered for publication).

I love how the brain works!
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I: Individualism or My Inner John Wayne (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I place high value on individualism. Idiosyncrasy. Independence. Being yourself even when there is pressure to mold yourself into something else.

It gives me a great sense of self-worth to think that I can take care of myself and my own, rather than relying on others. It's one of my core values as a person. The Duke and I probably wouldn't have liked each other in person. I'm way too liberal for his taste. Nonetheless, my inner John Wayne is loud and proud.

When I do have to ask for and accept help, I'm much more comfortable with a trading of favors (I'll watch your kids, then you can watch mine), or asking family members who are then free to ask me for help.  It's a balance. It falls apart if I'm asking more favors than I am giving or vice versa.

The older I get and the more I learn about the world, the more I realize that this focus on the self (as opposed to the collective or the whole group) is a very western thing. Very American of me.

This world-view is at the center of many inter-cultural conflict moments.  It's part of why and how we judge each other as parents, workers, and people.

As the world becomes a more global place and people with disparate backgrounds, values and expectations come into interaction with each other, we see this conflict more and more. It's disconcerting. It can make you feel really uncomfortable and make you judge others harshly and unfairly. It's really not about right and wrong, just about different expectations.

For example, my daughter was in a choral group with a girl whose family is from Korea.  (See chart: Korea, low on the individualism scale).  We both also had younger daughters, so, often, while our older children were rehearsing, we'd take our little ones to the playground. Several other mothers were in the boat and our children would run around and play together while we all talked to each other or played with our phones.

The other United States-born mothers and I might leave the playground briefly, but we would turn to one of the other mothers and directly ask them to keep an eye on our little ones and would admonish our little ones to listen to Mrs. So-and-So.  In this way, we still took individual responsibility for our children.

The Korean-born mother didn't do this. She, to our American eyes, seemed to just drift away from the group and assume all would be well. When intervention was needed (child conflict or injury), none of us was sure who should step in and what she should do. No one had individual responsibility for that child, you see, and we had not experience of a true collective society experience. Awkward, to say the least.

I've watched this happen among my colleagues at various schools, too. People born Up East can have a hard time here in North Carolina.  Social cues are very different. Confrontation is handled much more quietly and you are expected to keep your individual agitation to yourself.

I do okay in these situations. I don't take personal offense, and tend to try to look at the broader picture. Maybe it's because I am a foreign language teacher, so inclined to think about culture. Maybe it was those broadening effects of travel my parents were promised when they helped me travel in my youth. Maybe it's just that I've lived in more than one place and had to adjust to how they do things there.

Whatever it is, I wish I knew how to share it. I think we could avoid a lot of ugliness (hate speech, racism, violence) if we could stop trying to make everything black and white and assume the good intentions of others. Approach with an eye to understanding rather than an eye to judgment.

If you figure out how to teach that, please let me know. I've got a lot of children I'd like to help.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

H: Haunted (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I've been pondering the word "haunted." As a word nerd, I like the word quite a bit. It's got that fairly unusual "au" sound that feels good in my mouth, but drags the eye and makes you wonder if you've spelled it correctly. It sounds wonderful in a variety of regional accents.

It's versatile as well, serving as a verb or a noun, an adjective or an adverb in its various forms. Haunt. Haunted. Haunting.

It's both a good and a bad thing.

If I am haunted by my past misdeeds, then I get a hunted look in my eyes. (More word need joy for the connection between Haunted and hunted.) I might come to look kind of ghostly version of myself: pale and hollowed out.

But I can also be captivated by a haunting melody that lingers in my mind long past the moment of listening.

The heart of the word seems to be in this context of lingering. In many stories, ghosts haunt because they haven't let go and moved on. In fact, a trope of that genre is finding out what they've left unfinished and helping the ghosts move on. I'm a fan of the genre and the way horror and sadness and mystery all meld to form a tight little package. They often have a wonderful sense of true closure.

Of course, the word isn't limited to ghost stories.

If I am visiting my old haunts, I am lingering in places that I used to go to often, but probably don't commonly go to anymore. In a way, I am visiting the ghosts of my past selves, the people I was at various ages and times of life.

Emotions, too, can linger past the welcome point. Generally, we don't describe ourselves as haunted by the more explosive emotions like rage, but by the quieter, more internal and melancholy ones like guilt or grief or despair.

Come to think of it, even that haunting melody isn't all good. If I'm describing the music as haunting, as opposed to, say, catchy, I probably feel a little unquieted or unsettled by the music. Even while I admire its beauty, I am bothered by it, disturbed.

These days, I am mostly haunted by words. Guess it's time to write some more!
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

G: Gross (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

Children are gross. If you don't have any in your life, maybe you don't have first hand knowledge, but you've still seen it.

They ooze strange substances from every orifice. They are often mysteriously sticky. Mysteriously sticky is the most disturbing one: you can't quite be sure what that little urchin just smeared on you.

Because they haven't yet learned to take care of a lot of things for themselves, the grownup caretakers deal with a fair amount of bodily fluids: urine, vomit, snot, and drool just to name a few. Under some circumstances, even feces qualifies as a bodily fluid.

This is not one of the things people warn you about when they talk about how children will change your life. Sure, they require a lot of attention and time, but they also require a whole new array of housecleaning products and an iron stomach.

They don't have the strongest handle on hygiene either. Their definition of washed hands may not be the same as yours. The same for brushed teeth and combed hair. After all, they are learning, and the learning curve is steep when you're under four foot tall. Like climbing a mountain.

Luckily, they're also cute. Mine are so cute, they are even cute while being disgusting. If you have them, I bet yours are, too. At least we think so.

If you have any of those single friends that are afraid of children, or DINKs who've decided not to have any in your life, then you've probably seen this  expression of horrified withdrawal. You can see them wanting to yell "Unclean!" as they back away making the religious symbol of their preference.

To these folks, I always want to say: "You're right. They are gross. But you're missing out. Engaging with life means getting your hands dirty. And, children? That's the very definition of life right there."

Still, children are not for the faint of heart. They require strength of heart, will, mind and soul. Real fortitude. Some people don't have the stomach for it. 
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Monday, April 7, 2014

F: Frenetic (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

Do you ever feel like life is speeding up on you? Not gradually, but rapidly, like a boulder rolling downhill behind you? I definitely do.

Last week was like that. I was out in the evening four out of the seven days! Don't even talk about what the house looks like now, with no Mom at home for four evenings. (Samantha steps over baskets, shoes and toys, pretending not to see them). Luckily, it's my spring break and I can catch up a little.

Like many contemporary Moms, I have trouble figuring out how to keep up, how to balance it all and not go crazy. Sometimes, I do well, other times, well, less so.

How is that my mom and my grandmother never seemed to feel like this? Grandma had six children to manage, but she never seemed like she was in a hurry. (Though, come to think of it, when they went somewhere, they were always late).

So, what's different?

Expectations for the roles of women: My grandmother didn't hold down a job outside the home once she married. The home and children was her job. That's kind of amazing when I think of it, because they had six children and my grandfather didn't make that much money. In the same situation here in 2014, there'd be no question that both parents would work.  But, in the 1950's and 1960's? Not so much. The kids just had less food and went without shoes if they had to. Either poverty didn't have the same stigma, or they just soldiered on through the stigma.

More mothers worked outside the home by the 1970s, when my mom started the mom-ing game, but mine worked at home. She drove my grandmother and great-grandmother around because they didn't drive, so, in a way, she managed three homes.

I'm a schoolteacher, so I get a taste of this life on school holidays and summer "vacation." It's definitely true that I am less overwhelmed when running the household is my only job. It's easier to find time to grocery shop and wash the clothes when the day is my own to structure, instead of only 3-4 waking hours of it.

Expectations for what children do:  Did my uncles take lessons in this and that growing up? Did they have playdates involving transportation needs? Um, no. Neither did anyone else. You played at home, in your neighborhood, with whatever children were nearby. Maybe richer families did things like piano lessons, but, even that usually meant that the teacher came to the children, not the other way around.

By the time I was a kid, child leisure time was becoming more organized. I took dance lessons, swim lessons, piano lessons and gymnastics (not all at the same time) and played league-organized sports. So did my sister. My mom spent a lot of time in her car and in the bleachers or chairs waiting on us.

Compared to many of my friends and their children, I feel like my kids are less scheduled. The big one does schools sports now (so simpler transportation situations) and guitar lessons in our home.  The little one doesn't take any lessons right now, but used to do dance and tumbling. We hope to put her martial arts soon.

What might be new to the scenario is "me time" for parents. My husband has a once a week gaming group.  We take a sword class together once a week.  I have writing critique group twice a month, and sometimes I go to the movies or book club or a reading or dinner without my family and with friends.

My parents and grandparents didn't do that. Some people's moms and dads have a poker night or a sewing circle or something, but mine didn't. Some people's parents did church-related things, but that usually included the kids, so it wasn't separate from the children the way our individual activities are. But parents, mostly, went out very occasionally, for special things. They didn't seem to put the same value on keeping up a social life.

The result for us, is a color-coded google calendar that we check all the time. Every time one of us is invited to do something, we check there to see if it's possible. My husband and I are masters of coordination and negotiation. We know days in advance if we've hit a snag and need to arrange for our children to ride with someone else or arrange for hired babysitting. This life is why my blog is called "Balancing Act." I'm always trying to balance kids, family, friends, work, husband, self and dog.

The pace definitely feels frenetic. More than once, I have fallen and been run over by the boulder. I get up, dust myself off, and start running again. Because, what would I willingly give up? Really? Not anything. I love all these things. So, pass the coffee, because the boulder is going to keep on coming.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

E: Elegance (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I am not an elegant lady. I am a Converse and smart-aleck tee shirt sort of gal. I like my clothes to allow
for a walk in the woods, some housework, crawling on the floor after legos or other such endeavors at any time. When the wind blows, so does my hair and if I laugh until I cry, I just wipe it with the back of my hand. There's no makeup to smear across my face.

I just can't stay interested in things like hair, makeup, clothes and fingernails. There's a lot of other, more interesting things out there.

Mostly, I'm comfortable with this. It's who I am.

But I admire elegance in others, and sometimes I wish I knew how to be elegant.

Some women just seem to have an automatic elegance. Especially women of my grandmother's generation. Women who are now in their 80s, if we're still fortunate enough to have them. They knew a kind of style that I just don't get. How does one even get hair to do that?  How do you walk in shoes like that and make it look like something other than a weird balancing exercise?

Take Audrey Hepburn, for example. She was elegant, even when she wasn't trying, or seemed to be actively trying not to be elegant. It wasn't in the clothes alone, though she wore some beautiful things. She could make a bath towel with frayed edges elegant.

Is it something in the bones? If I had aristocratic cheekbones and a super long neck, would that turn me from a cute and fuzzy duck into a swan?

Is it money? Elegance often seems expensive. Pearl earrings and flowing gowns are hard to come by on a schoolteacher's salary. As are occasions on which one might wear such things.

Is it something more physical? A way of holding yourself? A grace of movement and gesture? If so, I don't think there's any hope for me. I am clumsy and charmingly awkward at best.

My grandmother would have said it was poise. She also claimed that could be learned, even though she herself couldn't define it for me well. When she tried, she talked about self-respect and a unruffled, serene demeanor. But she agreed that it wasn't cold or distant from others. We both knew elegance when we saw it, but can't explain it.

At times, I have tried to put on elegance, but it doesn't fit me well. I feel and look like I'm trying. My unease and discomfort shows. I pull at the clothes and pick at my nails. Elegant people never seem to be trying. It just happens, as simply and naturally as growing taller or having a certain color of eyes.

I'll just have to hope that not being easy in my own skin serves me well on the page. Maybe I can write someone elegant instead of trying to be someone elegant.
This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Friday, April 4, 2014

D: Drama (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I teach middle school, so I know a thing or two about drama.

Middle schoolers want everything to be big. They live in a hyperbolic fishbowl where every ripple in the water is amplified to a personal tsunami. Perspective is in short supply when the people are still short, but are struggling with adult emotions, situations and hormones.

I've developed a few theories about what causes the drama and how to deal with it.

Cause: Fear of being ignored: Middle school is a major transitional time of life. The things that made a person feel well-loved in elementary school do not necessarily translate into popularity in middle school. In the middle school mind, it's bad to have bad things happen to you, but it's even worse to have nothing at all happen to you. Attention is good, so good that negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Dealing with it: Make a personal connection. Help kids make personal connections with each other. Call positive attention to someone whenever you can. Provide structured opportunities for kids to compliment each other academically and personally. Model empathy and the idea that each person is important and has something to contribute to the group. Do not allow anyone to be left out, even they are trying self-exclude.

Cause: Immature reaction to mature situations: Ever tried to watch a movie with serious adult themes with a child who wasn't ready for it yet? I've taught kids who make barfing noises when two characters kiss onscreen, even if the whole film was a build up to this moment and the kiss is relatively chaste. Mostly, they're not trying to be jerks. They're trying to find a way to diffuse their own discomfort, and they go for humor. To the teacher, this is very frustrating. After all, you chose this particular film or experience for your class to meet specific educational goals, and this clown is clouding the moment.  On the other hand, this child is trying the best he or she can to sort out what a person is supposed to be feeling.

Dealing with it: Watch for potential moments like this and build in a pressure valve. Warn the kids about what's coming--don't let it sneak up and surprise them unpleasantly. Ask them to write and talk about their reactions. Include suggestions of what to do if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Talk about why you chose the particular material and what you want your class to get from it.

Cause: Lack of Perspective: Even though some of these people appear to be adults, in size and shape, they are assuredly not adults inside. They don't have a wealth of experience to call upon when badness comes their way.  It might really be the first time someone has targeted them for insults or rudely turned them away when they tried to be part of a social situation. They may not have healthy models for dealing with conflict at home. Telling them that "you'll understand someday" or "this too will pass" will only add to the feelings of isolation and distance.

Dealing with it: Perspective is a slow building thing. So, this is a long, slow struggle. Exposure is key. Anything that helps kids get a view into someone else's life, lets them walk in someone else's shoes can be helpful. Movies. Books. Personal stories. Guest speakers. Given that the kids are young, they are most interested by stories of young people. They don't really believe they will ever be old, but they believe that they will be older. Mentoring programs with high school students are highly effective for this reason.

Overall, the most important way to help a young person through drama is not to become part of the drama yourself. This isn't always easy. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers are under a lot of stress. Kids can get under your skin and piss you off, but you can't let it become personal and about you. Be the adult. Model reasonable behavior. Too many adults try to control this sort of thing as an act of will. "I will make you stop this!" That won't work. You'll just create a whole whirlwind of drama. Now besides being upset at whatever the first problem was, they'll get worked up about you and how adults treat them. It will escalate exponentially.

That said, you also can't ignore it. A summer program I once worked for at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University had a policy that I've always thought was brilliant: Zero Indifference. This is so much better than the idea of Zero Tolerance which is all about top-down force of will.  Zero Indifference asks the adults to engage with anything they see around them that is in appropriate.

Don't walk by the child in tears or punching a wall just because you don't know them. Gather information, offer advice, seek support as needed. But don't pretend you don't see it. Remember point one: fear of being ignored? Thus starts a vicious cycle anew.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

C: Compromise (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

As a mom and a teacher, I am often trying to help people understand the art of compromise. We
promote it as a method of conflict resolution. And it does seem to work, sort of, under some circumstances. Even if we can't come to a true compromise, we at least learn how to negotiate with each other kindly.

If I want to go the movies and you want to sit and talk, maybe we can watch a movie, then sit and talk about it afterwards. That's a nice situation. We both get what we want. Of course, if we both get what we want, maybe that's not a real compromise. We just decided to do both things. No one gave anything up.

Hmmmm . . .so let's say that you want to play Pinypons and I want to make cupcakes. If we're going to compromise, we try to find middle ground where you give something up and so do I.  If we make cupcakes with a Pinypon theme, then I kind of won, because we didn't really play Pinypons, but we did make cupcakes. If we have an imaginary cupcake party with our Pinypons, then you kind of won, because we didn't really make cupcakes, but we did play Pinypons.

So, maybe that's part of why compromise is tricksy (like Hobbits).  No one wins. Maybe we both end up happy enough, if the stakes were low. Or maybe neither of us is happy now. Or maybe neither of us is happy and something important is genuinely lost.

In adult life, compromise takes on some really negative connotations.
  • "I'm sorry Mr. President, security has been compromised!"
  • "Senator Fathead was caught in a compromising position this past week." 
  • "It compromised his chances for a promotion." 
  • "The painter compromised his artistic integrity when he added the CEO to his work."
  • "The stock he own in the company compromises the impartiality of the judge."
  • "She had to compromise her dream and accept a smaller garden."
  • "You can't compromise when it comes to your health!"
  • "She compromised her principles and accepted the new deal, even though it didn't include her partner."
  • "The stability of the entire structure is compromised by the shifts after the earthquake."
Generally, "compromise" is not a good thing, it seems. There are losses, and sometimes those losses are not acceptable--integrity, respect, dreams. Things that should NOT have been compromised.

I notice, too, that the phrase comes in passive phrasing a lot. Something "is compromised" or "has been compromised." It's something that happens to a person, rather than an action a person takes.

So, what do I teach my baby? I guess I'll compromise on my teaching of the art of compromise: it's not always the way to go. There are times when a girl should fight tooth and nail for her side and there are times when it's okay to cave in to the other side. The trick is in knowing the difference!

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

B: Benefit (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

Let's talk about the word "benefit."

A good job comes with benefits. You might also be friends with "benefits." If there's need to raise funds, we might hold a benefit.

I might give you the benefit of the doubt or do something for your benefit. Then again, I might be concerned that you are benefiting unfairly. Maybe you are doing something only for your own benefit.

It's a complicated little word, full of negative and positive associations. It's all about advantage, and whether it's considered appropriate for you to seek or hold an advantage in the circumstances at hand.

There's a lot of politics of power in these few letters. Who has the ability to bestow or take away a benefit? How are they judging whether a recipient deserves the benefit they are receiving?

It's an old word, full of the baggage of a system of patronage. For an artist, independence is important to freedom of expression, but refusal of benefits comes with its own cost in quality of life.

A quick googling of word origins shows me a Latin root (bene facere) meaning do good to. Looking at the word with my contemporary eyes, I see "bene" which means "good" and "fit" which implies a suitability, a fitness. So to get a benefit, someone needs to judge my fitness.

The noun form also has connections with charity and gift giving.  Recipients of charity and gifts know the unspoken but important component of showing gratitude, especially if you want to receive further benefits. That takes us back to patronage, and the level of sycophancy required.

That gets tricky when benefits are part of payment made for services rendered.  The terminology, at least, still seems to make things like insurance and sick leave into gifts, for which we should be properly grateful, rather than rights that can be negotiated and fought for. Hmmmmm, that has a certain political ugliness, doesn't it? Something that smacks of patriarchy and don't you worry your pretty little head, miss. "Patronizing" after all, is not a compliment.  It's a comment on where respect is and is not given.

It's probably true in many fields. I wouldn't know as I've only ever worked in mine. But teachers run into the attitude a lot. If you dare to suggest the benefits and salary are not commensurate with the workload, people freak out. They call you avaricious and question your commitment to the work. Many people seem to think we should be doing this work for free. After all, it's for the benefit of the children, isn't it?

When I'm feeling especially cynical, I chalk it up to sexism. After all, one of the ways that teaching became a "women's profession" was through the argument that women were cheaper labor, that it wasn't necessary to pay us like you would men because men would take care of us. Notice that the number of men in the field grows the older the students are. So does the salary.

Like so much in our educational system, the reasons we have the system we do have changed, but we still have the vestigial pieces, clogging up the works. Women no longer expect to be "taken care of" financially by men. But it's still harder for us to earn the same dollars for the same work.

So, the question becomes, whose benefit is this system for? More and more each year, I become certain that it's not the children. After all, children are a long term investment. The short-term yields can't be counted in dollars. But the cost? Well, eventually that will be very high indeed. How's that for a cost-benefit analysis?

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A: Ambivalence (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

In April, I am participating in a blog challenge. For each day of the month, we're to write a post that begins with a letter of the alphabet.  I've decided to write about evocative words.

A is for Ambivalence

I am often ambivalent.

By this, I don't mean that I'm wishy-washy or indecisive. I'm no Charlie Brown.

But I am of two (or even three) minds on many subjects. I'm good at looking at an issue from other angles, understanding the opposing point of view. I can see the flaws in both sides of an argument or standpoint.

This complicates my life sometimes. I want time to think and consider. Snap judgements make me uncomfortable. In fact, I tend to view them as sign of limited intelligence. Then, I become ambivalent about the arrogance of that attitude. After all, who am I to judge someone else's intelligence?

I'm even ambivalent about ambivalence itself. Ambivalence may complicate things, but that isn't all bad. It's at the heart of a lot of great art--that exploration of the gray areas of life. Maybe life is easier for those who can see it simply in clearly delineated dichotomies. But, I suspect it is less interesting. Doing the right thing is easy when it's clear: killing is wrong.  But, it's interesting when it's less clear: what about war? abortion? the death penalty? self defense? zombies?

It's in exploring ambiguities that epiphanies are born, that inventions are created, that change comes. It's the pondering of what else might be true that brings one nearest to the heart of truth.

Given my recent commitment to leave teaching after eighteen years, ambivalence seems a good watchword for me right now. I've been ambivalent about the work for a long time. I wrote the poem below around 2002.

No Child Left Behind.

I. Pessimism

America is created
each day
in uncomfortable desks
where minds reach to expand
above cramped knees,
where night-weary eyes glaze over
bored by lack of vision,
and ears tune to distant voices,
that somehow seem more near,
voices which sing of other lives and loves

in worlds tapping feet long to explore

America was created
by those who hungered
for food, for faith, for freedom.
Again stomachs growl
across the land,
mouths ache
to taste
to experience
to find and hold and own.
Thousands go hungry.
Appetite comes early,
but the keys to the kitchen
are withheld for eighteen years,
a sentence for crimes
which only might be committed.

America is created
in classrooms
too hot or too cold
where the equipment does not work
or is out of date
and the teacher is sick
at heart,
where the subjects are chosen
by forces mysterious as planets,
and assignments doled out,
checked off, and handed back
to be crammed into backpacks,
crumpled into pockets
or left--efficient  system.   
The machine cranks on
little knowing what it creates or why. 

II: Optimism

You can’t tell her
it’s time to give up.
She won’t believe
that a boy of 17 is done,
complete, beyond reach.
No matter what he’s done.
No matter what’s been done to him.

She refuses the notion
that the pregnant girl of 15
cannot be more than a welfare mother
like her mother before her.

She believes in them all,
in that still-wrapped gift
called potential,
and prays each will find
their spark, their reason.
She wants to teach them self-reliance
in the face of despair;
she knows the lengths
you can travel on perseverance alone.
Her classroom walls proclaim
the value of hard work,
honesty, attitude, and imagination,
promising excellence and success.

It’s not that she’s naïve
or a blind idealist.
She sees the forest and the trees,
she knows what’s what
and her ass from a hole in the ground.
It’s a kind of stubbornness.
She thinks of it as resolve,
rising to the challenge.

They say she’s soft,
that she gives too many second chances.
And she does get hurt,
disappointed and angry, but
her hope feeds on small things—
sparks of understanding seen
when eyes meet across a book;
a girl who realizes the answer
to her own question
while she is still forming it;
overhearing kids arguing
politics in the cafeteria,
quoting something they’ve read
or heard within the walls
of her classroom;
the wonder of witness,
the moment when beauty takes hold
the age-old discovery
discovered once more,
as new as the first eureka,
but heralded privately,
in the storehouse of her heart.

It puffs her up,
fills her with,
not just pride,
but pleasure,
a feeling that she matters
in the larger world,
that she has done her part.
Some may laugh at her willingness
to throw starfish back into the sea,

but she’ll keep at it all the same.