Monday, August 30, 2021

August Reads

School started in mid August for me, so that really put a dent in my reading time. Still, I managed to finish a few books: 

A little romance, a little horror, some supernatural happenings, a heist or two, and a health dose of wit and humor. Really, quite a good month for reading. 

I started with Eleanor and the Egret, a graphic novel by John Layman and Sam Kieth. My local coffee shop keeps a spinner rack stocked with a variety of comics and when I buy my "hurray! It's Friday!" treat of a pastry and a fancy coffee, I also often buy myself a comic. That's how I found the first issue of Eleanor and the Egret and I loved it so much, I ordered the trade. 

I'm so glad to have run across this bizarre and good hearted story of a young woman and an egret who become art thieves together. 

Alexandra Christian and I share a publisher, and I got her new book, Dr. Watson and the Ladies' Club Coven, as soon as it released in May 2021, but I hadn't read it yet! Wanting something short that I already knew I would love, I put this book next in my e-book queue. Like her previous Shadow Council Archives novella, The Ghost and Dr. Watson, this novella features Dr. John Watson after Sherlock Holmes has died in a world where supernatural happenings don't turn out to be phosphorescent paint and humans with ill intent, but the real deal. Highly recommended for fans of Sherlock Holmes and the supernatural. 

Earlier this summer, I read Monster, She Wrote by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, a sort of annotated bibliography of works of speculative fiction by women across history. In that book, I learned that Edith Wharton, an author I knew from her literary, historical classics like The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome had also written a number of Gothic tales. So when I was offered a good deal on a collection of her Gothic tales from Chirpbooks (a discount audiobook company), I jumped on it. The Wharton Gothics included stories with real ghosts alongside atmospheric tales in which the dread came from natural instead of supernatural causes. 

Meanwhile, over on my Kindle, I pounced on the next of Lucy Blue's Stella Hart Romantic mysteries, just released in July. You might remember that I read two of them last month and enjoyed them immensely. The third one, The Baronet Unleashed, was just as much fun. This one took us into old Hollywood which was a fun setting, and kept all the witty dialogue and charming romance going. I'm already looking forward to the next in the series!

Sad that I couldn't immediately read another Stella Hart, I dug through my Kindle library for something else that might scratch that particular itch and found the first of the Miss Fisher's Mysteries series by Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues. I bought it some time ago, when I was watching (and LOVING) the television series, but I hadn't read it yet. 

Like Stella Hart, Phryne Fisher is a firecracker of a woman, though she's more adventurous and less concerned about what other's might think of her than Stella. I quite enjoyed this introductory adventure with Miss Fisher and will definitely be back to read more of them. 

So that was my August in books. Right now, I'm in the middle of two books: The Count of Monte Cristo, which I'm reading for my first Monday Classics book club and quite enjoying as an audiobook and 2,000 to 10,000: How to Write Faster, Write Better, and Write More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron, a very practical book I'm hoping will help speed my process as a writer. In paper, I'm mostly reading comics right now. 

How about you? Read anything fabulous this August? I'd love to hear about in the comments! 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Not a Superhero

They probably meant well. 

It seems flattering at first blush, being called a superhero. 

It implies that I'm special, someone who handles work that an ordinary human would not be able to do--jobs that require super-human strength, endurance and effort. 

But the problem with that overblown, hyperbolic, and manipulative rhetoric is that teachers aren't superheroes. We're people. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm an amazing person. I can do more with 90 non-supervisory minutes a day than some people do in entire eight hour work days. I'm a master of efficiency, and surprisingly good at improv, too, given how often the rug is pulled out from under me mid-stride. Many of the teachers I work with are as amazing as me. Some are even MORE amazing. 

But, they're not superheroes. Neither am I. I'm just a middle-aged woman who's fed up with this particular method of dodging discussion of real issues. 

I know superhero imagery is appealing, and has become a favorite metaphor for lots of overworked, underpaid public servant sorts of work. But a lot of the people using this comparison don't know superheroes. 

I, do, though. I read, watch, and write superheroes. I know them well. 

And here's something we all need to remember: 

Superheroes are fictional.

Real heroes exist. Some of them are teachers. But superheroes are imaginary. 

Only imaginary heroes can shoulder the load alone, out of the goodness of their hearts, with no thought of reward or rest. Superheroes don't need help from ordinary folk. They don't need things like reasonable workloads, safe working environments, a living wage, or even our respect. 

But if society can cast teachers as superheroes, it lets the rest of the people off the hook. We don't have to make any sacrifices for the public good, like paying higher taxes so that students can learn in buildings that aren't falling apart, or paying teachers enough money that young, passionate, talented people might be attracted to this line of work. 

When I am called a superhero, I remember James Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, the angry spittle-flinging man ranting about the ineptitude and untrustworthy nature of the very superheroes who continue to save his butt and the butts of all the ungrateful citizens of imaginary New York and the world beyond.

Superheroes *do* get thanked from time to time, mostly in moments of crisis like alien invasions and such. 

Real heroes get thanked under similar circumstances, like a teacher throwing herself in the literal line of fire when another problem society ignored too long walks through the front door with a gun, or dying during the pandemic because they went to work in person despite the risk "for the kids." 

Remember those five minutes at the start of the pandemic when parents all over America realized what a teacher's job actually was and expressed gratitude? 

Yeah, that was over as soon as it went on "too long." When the superheroes were revealed as all too humanly vulnerable. A grateful public turns into a resentful public very quickly when the superheroes stop saving them. 

If teachers stumble--regardless of why (or even if they don't stumble, but someone manages to spin the story just right)--those teachers we were just praising as superheroes are suddenly on the front page again, but this time as the recipients of blame, anger, and ire. We're called selfish or incompetent, accused of indoctrinating students when we try to teach them to think for themselves. All from people who have never done our jobs (and honestly probably couldn't handle the job if we got them to try it). 

So, instead of throwing empty compliments like "superhero" at teachers, how about working to increase the likelihood of success? Remember that teachers are ordinary human with ordinary limits. If the job truly requires a superhero, no wonder we're going through a giant teacher shortage. Superheroes don't exist and ordinary people trying to be superheroes can die trying. 

I don't need flattery, and I'm not accepting more than my share of the blame. Instead, I want to see a world where success is possible and the work is sustainable. It's possible . . .it's just expensive. America has gotten off cheap on education so far, and we're starting to see the truth in "you get what you pay for." 

But, for now, what I really want to say is: take that cape and shove it. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Summer's Over and I'm Not Ready for School to Start


I still love teaching. Helping kids find their way in something they're trying to learn, getting to know the future generations as people . . . these are deep joys. Still. After 26 years of classroom life. That's saying something. 

But here, four days before my first teacher workday of the new 2021-2022 school year, I am absolutely not ready to go back. 

Teaching is always exhausting. Getting through to kids requires huge emotional investment, and the system is set up to undercut teachers at every step of the way: paying us so poorly that we struggle to make basic ends meet, trying to legislate things that should be professional decisions, piling on extra documentation requirements without providing time in the schedule to do the work, blaming us for every problem a child faces without giving us the corresponding credit when a child succeeds. 

Luckily, 90% of the time, it's just me and kids in my classroom. Their parents, school administration, and politicians may try, but they cannot really intrude on that relationship . . . not at the level of spending they're willing to do anyway (spies, whether digital or in person, are expensive). They're simply not there when the rubber hits the road. The kids and I are on that journey alone. 

Last year, teaching was a whole new kind of exhausting. 

One thing I value about the work is the predictability. Kids, of course, are not predictable, but generally, my classes meet at the same time every day with the same people in them studying the same things. I know when I can go to the bathroom and if I'm going to get to eat lunch or not (yes, that is often an "if"). I need those parameters to work within. 

Starting in March 2020, there was no predictability. I was sent home from school with directions to prepare for 3 or 4 weeks of asynchronous teaching and didn't start working in a classroom again for a year (and even then, it wasn't "normal" since I had to teach kids at home via zoom and kids in my room at the same time, with all new health precautions and the rules changed roughly every three days about what was and was not allowable). 

And 2021-2022 promises more of the same. 

I've been handed a set of parameters for 2021-2022. Who knows if these are the rules for three minutes, three months, or three years? 

Twitter Link

I'm glad, at least, that it appears I will no longer be asked to teach in two environments at the same time (online and in person). Just just looking at this list of restrictions depresses me. 

I'm trying to trust that my immunization will keep me from becoming too sick (like hospitalized, life-threateningly sick), but I have little doubt that I or my child (starting high school this year) will catch it this year. 

There are roughly 600 kids in my school building, 200 of whom do not qualify for immunization yet. There are roughly 1020 students in my kid's high school, all of whom are eligible for immunization. If county stats average out among children, 78% of them are immunized (Hurray! Last I heard, we only need 60-70% for herd immunity to help, if it's going to help with this).

Our district's year-round elementary school has already had several cases (I'm vague on numbers because there isn't very good transparency: the district is trying to ride that line between sharing information to allow people to protect themselves and avoiding causes panic). A colleague who just put her baby back in day care so she can return to work just found out that her baby (not old enough to be immunized) has caught it (thankfully, a mild case, so far). 

I'll do the best I can, of course, to give my students a good experience within these limits, but it's challenging. Finding a spark of joy and enthusiasm is difficult. I already feel snowed under and I haven't started. 

I took my summer as slowly as I could, trying to balance taking some rejuvenating opportunities (like seeing my family and attending author events) with self-care. But eleven weeks wasn't enough to find my balance and recharge. I can't even imagine how my colleagues who took on summer work must be feeling (luckily, my husband gets paid better than me, and funds my nasty teaching habit, letting me stay unemployed during summer hiatus). 

So, to all the teachers out there, take care of yourselves. Push back when the world pushes too far--you know they'll eat us alive if we let them. Keep working on the balance between dedication and burnout.

To all the kids and families of school children, remember that teachers are people, and when you feel you need to advocate for your children, do so with kindness and a heart to help, not blame. 

For everyone else, pray for us, if you're people who pray. Vote for us and policies that support us, if you're people who vote. Remember that these kids will take care of you in your old age--don't you want them to grow up whole, hale, and educated? 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

IWSG: Craft Books: Thinking ABOUT writing, or writing?


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.

August 4 question
- What is your favorite writing craft book? Think of a book that every time you read it you learn something or you are inspired to write or try the new technique. And why?

The awesome co-hosts for the August 4 posting of the IWSG are PK Hrezo, Cathrina Constantine, PJ Colando, Kim Lajevardi, and Sandra Cox! Be sure to check out what they have to say, and visit other writers in the blog hop!

I don't read a lot of craft books anymore, though once I did. They are a pleasure, and can be inspiring and encouraging, as well as instructive. 

But I don't read them very often anymore. 

It's not that I don't still feel like there's a lot to learn about writing life. I definitely do!…it's more a matter of time management and HOW I do my learning these days. 

Since my first novel was published in 2015, I've considered myself a professional writer. Currently, I stuff a full time writing life into part time hours, working 1-2 hours a day during the school year and 4-8 hours a day during summer hiatus, so that my day job (teaching middle school) can provide money, insurance, retirement plans and other staples of stability. 

It's not enough time for all the work of writing, rewriting, networking, marketing, etc., but it's what I can afford (literally, in the dollars in the bank, sense of "afford"). Plus, I'm finding there's something to be said for "hands-on" learning or "on the job" training. Theoretical consideration and hypothetical situations will only take you so far. 

image source
So, while I loved Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones when I was younger, it's been years since I read a book on the craft of writing, though there are plenty of them on my bookshelves still.  

That's not to say I'm not studying. I just tend to combine that with other tasks these days. When I get stuck, I read a few articles or posit a question to one of my writing communities to get real-time advice from others in the thick of the struggle themselves. I learn by doing and by talking to others who are doing. 

For Lamott, King, Goldberg and other giants of the field, my level of struggle is a memory. They no longer worry about building an audience, navigating the shark-infested waters of publishing, or balancing quality with quantity of output to keep a career from languishing. 

For others in The Writing Tribe, Works in Progress, or Area 42 (three of the writing communities I work with), that battle is being fought right now, and for that reason, the advice is very pragmatic. These groups linger less over the philosophy and ideals and concentrate more on the practice. 

If I let myself wander down those philosophical paths too long, I find I just stay there. I spend a lot of time thinking ABOUT writing instead of actual writing, and that might feed my practice in the long run, but it doesn't feed my career here in the short run. 

So, once again, I'm back to seeking a balance, this time between thinking and doing. 

How about you? Do you fall into research rabbit holes as easily as I do, and spend too much time thinking ABOUT what you want to do instead of doing it? Or have you found a better balance of learning and doing? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

July Reading


I missed the end of July! Here we are already three days into August before I noticed it was August. 

To be fair, I WAS at a convention all weekend (Galaxy Con, Raleigh). I barely knew what time it was, let alone what day it was. 

Me with all my book babies at GalaxyCon

But I did want to tell you about what I read in July, because I read some excellent books :-) (as always, you can click on the link in the book's title to see my fuller review on Goodreads--I don't review on Amazon anymore because Amazon decided I was up to nefarious things and won't respond to my queries . . . apparently writers aren't allowed to also be readers?). 

I started off the month by finishing The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, which I began in June because I wanted to talk to play along with the #WeeklyLitChats #BuddyRead over on Twitter with Manuela Sonntag, DB Carter , and the rest of the regulars. It's one of those books that everybody knows in a sense, because it's so steeped in our culture, often adapted and parodied, but I had never read it. I found it a bit disorganized by contemporary standards, with plot lines dropped for a hundred pages and then picked back up, but the characters I knew and loved from popular culture sang on the page and it was well worth the read. 

After all that bro-mance, though, I was ready for something very different, so I picked up Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a book that had been in my TBR since its release. LOVED it. So much great Gothic atmosphere with extra layers of horror in the form of colonialism. 

Monster, She Wrote
by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson was probably a dangerous choice in that it added a hundred or more books to my TBR. It's a historical overview of women in speculative fiction and there are so many more things I now need to read! 
Becky Chambers has become one of my automatic purchase authors. When I need a boost of optimism and hope, she's just the ticket. Her newest is a short book, A Psalm for the Wild Built, which takes place on a far-future, post-factory earth and chronicles a friendship between a human man and a robot. 

I finally finished Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. I started it some months ago as an audiobook, and the narration was so flippant that I found it off-putting. While there is certainly some snark in Solnit's book, the narrator read it like it was a rom-com, so I put it down. When I came back to finish it on Kindle, I liked it much better, though I still it's a bit "feminism 101" for a woman like me, now over 50 and hardly new to the battlegrounds of feminism. Maybe better if you're a newb? Still, more power to Solnit for getting a whole book out of a single funny/sad incident at a party. 

I wasn't sure what I felt like reading after that, so I went to my Audible library, organized by "not yet read" and "by length" and picked something short: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi. I have enjoyed all of the Scalzi I have read, and this one was quite interesting, too. Noir-esque, but not so very gritty. Very interesting world/central concept. 
Then, I realized that Lucy Blue was about to release a new romantic mystery in her Stella Hart series. Lucy and I share a publisher, and I've been hearing such good things about her books, so I figured this was my moment to check them out. I read Guinivere's Revenge and The Passion of Miss Cuthbert back to back. They're short, fast-reading, and delightful. 

They're set in the early 20th century and combine mystery-romance-historical elements into witty and charming stories. I LOVE Stella and George, and appreciate romantic stories that aren't all about prolonging the chase, but instead let the romance progress. The third is next in my TBR, so tune in next month to hear about that one. 

After that, I was once again unsure what I wanted to read, so I went to short books already in my Audible library and found Nim's Island, a middle grades adventure story with shades of Pippi Longstocking and Swiss Family Robinson. I'd seen the movie some years ago, and enjoyed it, and I also quite enjoyed the book. Light and fun, whimsical. 

The last book I finished in July was Yo-Yo Ma's A Beginner's Mind, a short memoir combining recordings of his performances with anecdotes from his journey as an artist. It made me wish I could invite myself to Ma's house and just listen to him talk for a few days. He's such a kind-hearted, open person, with quiet grace and I was already a huge fan of his musical performances. His mini-concert videos on Facebook were part of what saw me through the pandemic. 

I tried and failed to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude for my First Monday Classics Book Club. Too free-wheeling and unmoored for my mindset right now, and I finished the month still in the middle of two books: The Wharton Gothics by Edith Wharton and Dr. Watson and the Ladies' Club Coven by Alexandra Christian. Tune in next month to see how those shook out for me (spoiler: I'm really enjoying both). 

What did you read in July? I'd love to hear about in the comments!