Sunday, February 28, 2021

Short Month, Short Reads


How was your month for reading? 

I started strong with The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, a wonderful portal fantasy story. 

But then started to suffer from short attention span--probably due to the stress of my school district suddenly changing the plan and sending me back into the classroom six weeks earlier than planned, and four days before I had the chance to get immunized. (I'd roll my eyes, but I've been doing that so much, they might fall out). 

I hate that when I'm under stress, it gets harder to enjoy my favorite escape . . .just when I need it most. So, I decided to try listening to some of the shorter works in my Audible collection that I hadn't listened to yet. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle was a delight. I've read some Sherlock Holmes before and have enjoyed modern interpretations of the famous detective in film and television, so I was happy when my First Monday Classics book club chose this one, and handed me the impetus to revisit the characters in their original form. It made me want to read other ones, and also scratched my Gothic romance itch with the fantastic description of Baskerville Hall and the surrounding moors. 

I picked up I Hate Men because I was curious where that provocative title might take me. As a fifty year old woman, I didn't find much in it I hadn't considered before . . .but I did think it thoughtful and articulate on issues of gender and equality. Unfortunately, the title means that the author will only be preaching to the choir.

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Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World
by Michael Pollan was a fascinating read, covering caffeine's development, especially as tied to tea and coffee, and effect on society, as well as some exploration of the physiological effects. It didn't convince me to cut myself off, but it did make me more cognizant of keeping control of my habit. 

A Mind of Her Own by Paula McLain was my most disappointing read of the month. In trying to straddle fiction and nonfiction, it ended up pleasing me on neither front. I recommend The Half-Life of Marie Curie by Lauren Gunderson instead if you're interested in learning more about Madame Curie. 

Authentically Mexican: A Family History in Six Dishes by JP Brammer was a quiet memoir about a man who grew up straddling two cultures: white and Mexican. 

I'd heard of A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, but didn't really know much about it. I was surprised by the passion and anger of the essay, written in second person, addressed to "you: a white tourist." Highly recommended!

Sherman Alexie is on my list of disappointing men who got a little power and privilege and used to abuse women, so I probably wouldn't have read his book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, except that my daughter was assigned it for class and she wanted me to read it with her so I could help her if she got stuck on the schoolwork. It really is quite a good book, touching and honest-feeling (and thankfully not full of nasty attitudes about women). Great voice. 

A Theft Most Fowl by Nicole Givens Kurtz is the second in the Kingdom of Aves series. I LOVE this creative speculative mystery series, set among bird-people and following Hawk Tasifa, our detective who is literally a hawk-person, able to see what is not seen. I look forward to more in the series. 

The last book I finished in February was The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. I'm really becoming quite a fan of her work! (I also loved Magic for Liars) I actually don't want to tell you much about it because I think it's better to go in blind and just enjoy the ride in this one, but I will say that it left me thinking and got me in the feels on more than one front. 

The Echo Wife wasn't a short-short like most of what I read this month, so maybe I'm over my short-attention-span problems for the time being. Hoping so! 

So, what did you read this month? Tell me about it in the comments below! 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Car Dates

 One of the casualties of pandemic life at la casa Bryant has been date nights. As people who have never been married without children (I already had a daughter when I married Sweetman), date night has been essential to us from the get-go. We work to make sure we get some quality us-two time alongside work and family responsibilities, even when we can't afford anything fancy.

We have a teenager still at home, and while we do all try to give each other some space here during the pandemic, we've only been home without her about three nights in the past year (when she had a sleepover with her college-student-sister). It's not an option to send her on a sleepover, or even just to a friend's house for the afternoon like we're used to. 

Most of our favorite dating options, such as movies, restaurants, and theater outings have either been unavailable, or have not be available in a way that we feel safe about utilizing. So, what's a couple to do?

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Sweetman and I value our date time, and though we try to capture a bit of it at home by getting special takeout and watching movies at home, playing games together, and banishing the teenager to her room for a while so we can feel alone, it's not the same. 

We're both bad at separating from the to-do lists and practicalities when we're at home, so it's hard for us to capture a sense of fun and romance without going somewhere. 

Some months ago, though, we came up with the car date. 

Basically, we pick something to go see, and a scenic route to get there, hop in the car and drive (leaving the teenager home with the dog to YouTube unfettered for a a few hours). 

Along the way we talk, play songs for each other, hold hands over the gear shift and seek new experiences together. 

While we have a destination, it's generally something we found on Atlas Obscura, involving driving by something or getting out and looking at an oddity, not something with tickets and timetables, so it's okay if we stop anywhere along the way just because we saw something interesting or if we fail to find the thing we were looking for. 

If the weather is nice, we get some takeout and find a place to picnic. If it's too cold or rained too recently, we get some takeout at the end of things, and take it back home to enjoy. 

This week's date took us on a lovely sunlit drive through muddy storm-bedraggled countryside to Shangri-La…the miniature stone village built by a retired farmer and available to admire and explore for free. It's adorable! A series of small buildings made of stone and brick, arranged in a tiny village. Toys strewn throughout add to the whimsy and crocus sprouts were just poking out their heads, so I intend to come back soon to see them in bloom. 

We were both completely charmed by the project and the results. Along our drive we found a local cider producer we didn't know about and found out where exactly a nature area I'd heard about was located. So future small adventures are afoot!

How about you, people of the internet? How do you keep a little romance in your lives under current circumstances? 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Whiplash and Tire Tracks on My Back: Teaching During the Pandemic

 In my day job, I teach middle school Spanish. My school, like many in the United States, closed its doors in March 2020, expecting that we'd all stay home for a couple of weeks while the wave of Covid-19 rolled over the country and that we'd be back to finish the school year. That's not what happened, of course. It didn't go away in a couple of weeks. 

We finished the 2019-2020 school year from home, with an ineffective program cobbled together in six minutes with no clear expectations and guidelines for teachers or students. We had some things in our favor since my school district already provided laptops to students, so we could at least guarantee that students had a device to use to access school materials, but we had no plan for offering instruction without the in-person element.  

Teachers were told that they were not allowed to teach new material, nor give any grades, and kids quickly figured out that there would be no consequences for failure to perform, so they disappeared in droves. I doubt that much learning of significance happened for anyone between March and June 2020.

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During this first bit of school-from-home public rhetoric was full of realizations of how difficult teaching really is. We were called heroes. Parents talked about how much they admired us for handling this every day and praised our creativity in finding ways for our students to keep learning.  

That lasted a month or two, then parents began to feel the wear of providing educational support and supervision for their children while trying to juggle their work responsibilities. 

So they began to throw teachers under the bus. The public rhetoric shifted to how teachers were overcautious at best, selfish for worrying about their own survival instead of what's "best for kids." 

NCAE and other teacher groups fighting for basic precautions and accommodations for teachers with underlying conditions putting them at high risk began to be accused of trying to get paid for "nothing" even as teachers worked harder than they ever had before to try to make learning possible despite huge obstacles. 

My personal favorites are the people who argue that teacher need to suck it up because other people did--the same argument people use to argue against student loan forgiveness and other social programs, like we can only be united by suffering the same fate, instead of learning from what happens to one group and preventing suffering for others. Now *that* my friends, is a particularly bitter brand of selfishness. 

Come 2020-2021 school year, and we BEGAN the school year at home. It was better though, at least in my neck of the woods. 

We had worked on a program all summer, and we had a plan involving scheduled and required live zoom classes, online asynchronous learning opportunities, and even offering limited in-person learning centers for kids/families in high need. Work would again be graded, giving back that traditional tool of accountability and measure of participation and effort. 

It hasn't been perfect, but it's been functional. My students mostly show up to live zoom class, or communicate about why they can't. I have about the same percentages of kids struggling and excelling that I always have had (I've been doing this for 26 years, and though I try to reach every kid, I'm enough of a realist to know that isn't realistic). My 6th graders, who had never attended middle school in person struggled the most, and my 8th graders, veterans of our school, handled it the best. Some kids have truly thrived, loving the release from bullying situations and uncomfortable social pressure.

The district found creative ways to bridge technology access problems. They provided wifi hotspots to families in rural areas or who didn't have regular internet access at home. They transformed school busses into rolling wifi stations and drove into high need neighborhoods and parked during agreed upon hours, so kids could use that access. The foods programs kicked into high gear, trying to make sure that no one went hungry and making it as easy as possible to get meal boxes for our families. The librarian arranged for curbside book pickup and drop off. In a lot of ways, it was working. 

So, of course, we can't just enjoy the fruits of our labor and stick with the system a little longer. Because the people who lost the earlier argument keep coming back and leadership folds because their decisions are based on external pressure rather than any independent analysis of facts and consideration of what's actually best for the students and teachers. Jelly for backbones. 

My district has changed plans so many times now that I've lost track. I feel like I've been watching high speed tennis and got whiplash in the process. 

I remember that, at first, we were due to come back to a sort of in-person school in January, but the pushback was HUGE, especially given that that the projected return date wasn't even 2 weeks past Christmas--which was the epicenter of a new spike of cases across the country. We won, and the return date was set for April--after Spring Break, and after the date we expect that teachers will have been offered the chance to be immunized. I was so relieved, I felt like my shoulders dipped below my ears for the first time in months. 

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That brings us to now: 

Teachers, even teachers with ADA accommodations like me, are being forced back into the classroom next week in my school district, thanks to a legislative push that our governor opposes but is not expected to veto. So, my first day back in the classroom with kids will be February 22 (just in time for the Superbowl spike of cases). It's either that or quit--four years too early for retirement, with a kid in college to support. 

February 22 is an arbitrary selection that ignores all the safety measures we've been discussing for months. The immunization becomes available for teachers in my state on February 24, and the new HEPA air filters are scheduled to be installed in mid-March, but we're being shoved back in the classroom early, which I find especially frustrating when immunizations and filtered air are both right there just barely over the horizon. What do two weeks matter in the face of a safer transition? 

There I am, back under the bus again. 

It's not that my district isn't doing anything. They do have clear mask policies and requirements with zero tolerance for noncompliance. They do ask the questions and take the temperatures of anyone entering the building, so we at least have the performative security measures like taking off your shoes at airport security. 

But my BIG question right now is: what do we gain from this that is worth what we lose? 

Here's what in-person instruction will look like at my school: 

Roughly 50% of my students will continue to learn-from-home because that is what their families have selected--parents get the right to select based on nothing more than personal assessment of comfort/safety, but staff is not afforded the same consideration. The other 50% has been divided into group A and B, which will attend school from 8:30-2:00 four days a week on alternating weeks. 

So, if you're a parent hoping for day care help, you get 4 shorter-than-usual days every other week with no options for pre or post-care. Not sure how helpful that will be for your own work concerns. 

The students will be masked and kept 6 feet apart at all times, including while walking through halls, waiting in line, using the bathroom, etc. They will get very little of the social benefit of time spent with other kids because they are not allowed any close contact and will have to eat their lunches in silence because they are limited to 15 minutes with masks off and may not speak during that time because of concerns of germ spread. They cannot play their instrument in band or sing in chorus, and the rules seem to change by the moment for physical education.

So, if you're a parent hoping this will give your kiddos the benefits of social interaction, you're not really getting that either. 

I will be pinned to my desk because I have to offer instruction to the 1/4 of my students IN the room, and the 3/4 of my students NOT in the room at the same time. This means that the kids in my room, will still pretty much just be getting a zoom class. Also, I'm not allowed any nearer to them than 6 feet. Also, I will be stressed out and frazzled by managing all that at the same time and probably much shorter tempered than I ever allow myself to be in the classroom. 

So, if you're a parent hoping this will give your student the benefits of in-class live-teaching experience, you won't really get that either because the teacher's focus is divided and physical distancing limits our interactions with the people present with us. 

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Meanwhile, people will get infected. 

Maybe we'll be lucky. Maybe our cases will be mild. 

Maybe your kid and your kid's teacher won't be the one who dies or suffers lifelong health implications. 

But many among the staff and students will spend a fair amount of mental energy worrying about it and anticipating disaster, and that takes a mental health toll in and of itself. 

Teachers will quit. 

Many already have--left teaching, taken early retirement. Classes will be supervised by substitutes while the teacher quarantines after exposure, which means they'll still be taking zoom classes or participating in asynchronous learning, but now they'll also be worried about their teacher and getting limited feedback. 

So, I'll let you know how it goes, but my prediction: poorly. And if I die from Covid because my district wouldn't wait two weeks to get me immunized? Y'all better pray ghosts aren't real, because I'll be back to haunt with a vengeance. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021


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Wanderlust fills me with a restless urgency sometimes. If I were a woman of means, I'm not sure I would even have a permanent home--instead I might have great luggage, a mind full of sunsets over distant horizons, and a storage facility where I send my keepsakes. 

But I'm not a woman of means, so I've not had nearly the amount of travel I'd like. I managed to see a few places when I was younger--Spain, England, the Bahamas, wide swaths of the United States and Canada, but it's been more than a decade since I've taken a significant trip--one with airplanes and customs I don't understand and languages I can't speak. I'm feeling the tug of the road hard these days. 

Usually, I can tamp it back down--stave it off with a small adventure that fits into my life responsibilities and pocketbook--but I have a hunger for serious travel in my heart of hearts, a deep-seated desire to explore new places, see them not just in photography and film, but with my own eyes and senses. The hunger has gone too long unfed and I'm getting hangry. 

When the pandemic descended upon us, I was planning a trip to Ireland with my mother and my sister. It was supposed to be for Mom's birthday last summer, but by spring, it was clear that none of us were going anywhere. I go back and forth on whether I should be letting myself hold out hope for this summer either. Vaccine--yay! Noncompliance keeping Americans on no-travel lists--boo!

So, it's been nearly a year, and I haven't been further than an hour from home with only one exception in all that time. Dang, but my feet itch. This is not my favorite sort of unrequited love. 

Here's to travel. May we all have the chance to visit far horizons again soon. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Blogging with Friends: 21st century Calling Cards

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

February 3 question - Blogging is often more than just sharing stories. It’s often the start of special friendships and relationships. Have you made any friends through the blogosphere?
The awesome co-hosts for the February 3 posting of the IWSG are Louise - Fundy Blue , Jennifer Lane, Mary Aalgaard, Patsy Collins at Womagwriter, and Nancy Gideon! 

Be sure to check out their insights next!

Blogging can be a great way to connect with other writers and creatives. Participating in blog hops like this one and the A to Z Blogging Challenge in April has introduced me to so many interesting people over the years. 

There are people I still follow that I first found by clicking through links in a list of participants and others that have wandered through my life for a few months then wandered back out again, but all of them have taught me something. 

If you follow someone for years, you can watch them change and grow--see aspiring writers become award-winning, multi-published authors with book deals and exciting projects. Heck, I even enjoy looking back through the archives of my *own* blog sometimes in that light--too see how far I've come and how my goals have changed over time. 

I learn about opportunities that way too--there's always something to be gained by taking a moment to step into someone else's world for a moment and look around. In that way, blogging can be a form of networking and research as well as community-building and friendship. 

Living a creative life is easier with community, and blogging can be a great way to build that community, if you're willing to put in the work. 

And there is work, or at least time investment. There's an expectation of reciprocity, rather like leaving a calling card in an 18th century novel: I visited you, and you should return that favor. We invest in each other, giving our time and attention. 

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I rather enjoy it myself--it's a genteel sort of obligation that leaves me feeling fancy, like the digital equivalent of visiting day for one of Jane Austen's heroines. So leave me your calling card, in the comments below, and invite me to your digital house. I'd love to see what you're up to. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

January Reads

I had a bit of a rough start to 2021, as did many of us, I'd imagine. I was caught in all the same whirlpools and eddies that had kept me spinning in circles for most of 2020, so the month didn't have that "fresh start" feeling that it sometimes can. (It got a little better late in the month). 

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I was even STILL working on the fourth Menopausal Superheroes novel, a project that should have been finished and sent to my publisher on January 1, but which I finally handed in on January 31. This is officially the latest I have ever been on a deadline of any sort, and definitely the first time I've been that late on a publishing deadline. Those who know me IRL can probably imagine the tizzy that had me in. 

I shut down nearly everything I do for entertainment during January: almost no TV, very little gaming, even less socializing than usual. But I didn't give up reading. 

In fact, I had a great reading month! I read five books and really enjoyed all five. 

I started with a biography of Bruce Lee by Matthew Polly, which I enjoyed as an audiobook. I already knew enough about Bruce Lee to know the man had led a fascinating, if all too brief life, so it's no surprise that the details and controversies of his life made for good material. But I've read more than one biography that managed to make an amazing person into boring reading, so I'm happy to report that this telling of Bruce Lee's life story was thoroughly engaging, and struck a balanced tone that painted the man neither as a blameless paragon nor a villain, but as the driven performer and ambitious person he was. 

When I can find time for it, this book made me want to have a personal Bruce Lee film festival, hunting down as much of his work as I can and watching it. Coincidentally, right after I read this book, I found the TV Show Warrior, a project Bruce Lee dreamed of bringing to fruition and which has now finally been produced for television. My husband and have watched a few episodes now and it's powerfully done. I only wish Lee could have seen it made in his lifetime and taken the starring role he'd planned for himself. 

At the same time, I was reading Charles W. Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars on Kindle for my First Monday Classics Book Club. I'd never heard of this book before, so I was so glad my book club brought it to my attention. A study on the idea of "passing" racially, the story centers around a bi-racial light-skinned woman just after the Civil War and her ill-fated romance. The ending upset me, even if it might have been the right one for the story, and I still find myself thinking about the book weeks after I finished it. It deserves to be better known!

Chesnutt's explorations of race led naturally into Kindred by Octavia Butler, a book that had been on my TBR list for ages, but which I had not yet read. It's a very unusual time travel story, in that no time is spent on the mechanics of time travel. Instead, being pulled back in time is just something that happens to Dana, the main character, a woman from the 1970s who finds herself among her ancestors in the antebellum south, seeing first-hand the fraught relationships and lasting damage the institution of slavery wrought. I read this one moving back and forth between an audiobook and the kindle edition and found it fascinating. It's taken over the "favorite" spot for me of books by Butler, though I have not yet read everything she wrote. 

Circe by Madeline Miller was all over Instagram a few months back and I decided now was a good time to dive into it and I'm so very glad I did. It hit so many positive notes for me: fierce and difficult protagonist, complicated love story, reinterpreting and reimagining known mythologies. I have a feeling this one will be on my "best of" list when I get to the other end of 2021. 

The last book I finished in January was The Butterfly by Lucy Blue, a romance/mystery in the Sherlock Holmes universe. I loved this interpretation of Holmes, and hope that Blue will consider writing more stories like this one in the future. In the meantime, I've downloaded her Stella Hart series of romance mysteries that I've been hearing good things about. They sound right up my alley. 

As the month ended, I was in the middle of two more books that are both wonderful so far. Check back in February and I'll let you know what I thought! In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. What did you read this January? Any favorite authors I ought to check out?