Sunday, September 30, 2007

Artsy Stuff!

Being here, doing tons of reading and writing, has really opened up my creativity! I've been keeping up with my blogging, writing lots of poetry, snapping lots of photos and even drawing! I've loved to draw ever since I was little. In middle school, I had to choose between dance lessons, piano lessons and art lessons. I chose art, almost instantly. Mom suspects it's because are comes more naturally to me. She's not wrong.

I love to go dancing with my friends. I enjoyed being in the tap-dancing play in college (Stepping Out), and learning the dance routines for other plays and music programs in school. I also got a kick out of dancing for competition cheerleading, and I wasn't half bad. The thing is, I had to practice twice as hard as the other girls.

As for music, I thought I was bad at playing the piano. Actually, according to Mom I was average. I just thought I was bad because I was used to things coming easily to me. Playing trombone was a little better, but I never really felt confident at it. I adore singing, especially in a group, and my singing is above average, but I feel so vulnerable when I sing alone.

With art, you can take as much time as you want to tweak things, but I'm still a perfectionist about it. I get frustrated, because what happens on the paper so rarely matches the picture in my head. The thing is, I'd forgotten how much fun it is! When I first got to New York, I used to do all these crazy doodles. I feel like my old job just sucked so much creative energy out of me and now I'm getting it back.

Along the left side of this entry, you can see two photos that turned out awesome: one of a butterfly and one of a broken sink dial (tap? It was to show my landlord the problem, but it turned out so cool!), and two recent drawings: a hummingbird and a girl. The hummingbird started out as an ink drawing I scribbled between classes. Later I filled it in using oil pastels. I thought Grandma Carm might like it. The other is a pencil drawing I did yesterday, just for fun.

My art skills need a lot of practice, but it's a nice start. I hope you're having a creative time, too!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

This week's cookin'!

This week kicked the tush of last week! Yes, last week was a crazy headlong rush of work and anxiety. Read-teach-read-class-read-research- poem torn apart in poetry class- crying jag- teaching-writing-meeting-writing-class. This week, there was still a lot of teaching and writing, but a lot more joy. To be honest, I barely remember Monday, so it couldn’t have been that great.

Well, I remember one thing: My Teaching English Composition course requires us to observe a teacher’s class. Kerstin came to watch mine one day. Monday, a student asked, “So how did the observation go? What did you get?” He thought I was getting graded, and was concerned for my grade. Isn’t that sweet? At teaching class that night, Kerstin gave me a thank-you present. She's so thoughtful! I guess I was telling her about my new cooking ambition and lack of budget for saffron. Her gift was a few nice cooking magazines she had around, a favorite recipe of hers, and ziplocks of spices for the recipe – sage and saffron! (Photo saffron threads downloaded from Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, for the first time a student actually showed up for help during office hours. I had a good time helping her work on an analysis of the spider symbolism in Charlotte’s Web. Then I was dreading poetry class, and put off writing the assigned poem too long, but it turned out well.

Well, I shouldn’t have worried. Class was great! We looked at the similarities between poetry and music using a Chaka Kahn song and a Tracy Chapman song. For class we had to write a poem that has to be read aloud to be fully appreciated. Mine was a funny take on slam poetry. Everyone laughed, which was awesome! Then the teacher handed back a few of our poems with comments. On mine, he had drawn lots of stars next to things he liked, called part of one poem powerful and mysterious, and said I work my closings well. Nadine, one of my professors at Buena Vista University always said the same. She said I should call my first book of poetry “Last Lines.” This praise will make future criticism easier to take, because I’ll know that he likes some of my work (and, thus, does not think I’m incompetent). Yay!

Wednesday I had a great, workshop-style class with my loverly students who are working their way, slowly but steadily, through their analyses. It’s a hard thing to do the first time, but it will make everything else they have to write for college easier. After class, a girl stayed for help. Then I had to read some non-fiction articles for my 19th Century Lit class. The discussions in class were so lively, and I got my paper back (the one I was so nervous about). I got an A-! Yay! I had been afraid I did so much worse. Yay, yay, yay! I have to get good grade to 1- justify my continued full-ride and assistantship and 2- improve my chances of getting into a good DA or PhD program if I need to after I graduate.

Today I had some extra office hours and met with a few more students to discuss their analyses. After that I was exhausted, so I decided to watch my most recent Netflix movie, Love Me if You Dare. Warning: SPOILERS FOLLOW. It was so beautiful and French, but it left me confused. A little boy and little girl met and started daring each other to do things. The dares kept escalated until they were adults. The whole thing is gorgeous and romantic, but increasingly dark. The movie ends with them standing in a form being filled with concrete. But then it shows them as old people still doing dares…but then it shows a pillar of concrete. Were they actually in the concrete, and the old people thing was their afterlife, or did they get out at the last second? I don’t know. I really don’t.

Then I had to get after Bank of America on the phone. DO NOT JOIN BANK OF AMERICA! I’ve been banking since at least high school, and I’ve had more trouble during the one month I’ve been a BoA customer than in my previous decade of banking. It’s driving me nuts, but hopefully they’ve got everything fixed now.

After all that banking frustration, I walked to the store and bought chicken. (Round-trip it took about an hour.) I came home and made Kerstin’s recipe. Risotto…yum! (That's not my risotto at left. That photo's from The recipe was perfect to use up the wine and chicken stock left over from the last recipe I made. (The chicken stock will only be good for another four or five days, according to the box). I threw some browned chicken thighs into the risotto before baking it, and the resulting dish as delicious. Even thought I used boneless, skinless thighs, it came out so moist and tender.

Then I watched the season premier of Gray’s Anatomy. Hooray! It lived up to the usual level of drama and silliness.

Tomorrow is my students’ workshop, part 2! Then, since I didn’t write much today, I’m making the rest of Friday a writing day. And since I usually read on Fridays, Saturday will have to become reading day. Next week is the Old Dominion University Literary Festival. Yay! I’m going to get to meet some great writers (fiction, non-fiction and poetry). I’m so excited.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Exploring the neighborhood and cooking chicken.

Thursday was not as productive as it could have been. I did get some writing done, but mostly I recovered from Tuesday and Wednesday. I also I picked out a recipe to try. My goal is to make at least one new recipe a month so I know how to cook more things. I jotted down the ingredients and went to the store for groceries.

Friday’s class, as I mentioned, was SO MUCH FUN! Then I deposited my first check from ODU and went for a walk. I walked down to 21st St., an area with lots of restaurants (including the Thai place from Wednesday), a theater, a movie theater and lots of shops. It turns out, due to some weird geography that it’s just 12 blocks away, not the 19 block it first seems. I grabbed some necessities from the drug store (yay, I can but girly products without a guy around), cleaning spray and a few last ingredients for my recipe…just not saffron. Saffron apparently costs $18 for a bottle with a tiny packet inside. Here’s hoping the chicken’s okay without it.

It was an okay walk back. Norfolk is weird. The sidewalks go in fits and starts. Sometimes the city itself places large signs blocking the sidewalk (They’re all, “Ooh, a flat surface. It’s not like pedestrians use these decorative strips of cement.”) and there are places that really need crosswalk lights but don’t have them. It’s still an easy walk in the day, but I don’t think I’d do it at night, because you have to walk in a dark walkway under a bridge. I’m pretty confident about traveling by myself, whatever the neighborhood, but there are rules: 1- Stay where it’s well-populated. 2- Stay where it’s well-lit.

When I got home, I started cleaning our inherited couch. When the neighbors gave it to us, we were so grateful. Well, we still are, but with time we began to notice the dinginess and dog smell more and more. No one sits on them! They’re just decorative at this point. I got half the couch scrubbed last night, and this morning finished the other half. (In the picture at left, the left half is clean and dried. The right half is dirty and wet from cleaning spray). Now all that’s left are the cushions…and the pillows…and two chairs. Grr. But the couch already looks and smells so much better (though a bit chemicalish). I figure I’ve put so much time and effort into the furniture that when it comes time to leave, they’ll be mine. (That’s important since I’ll be poor.)

After that, it was time to start supper. Chicken La Bodega time! (I’ll post the recipe below.) There were some kinks to iron out. For example, the recipe wasn’t specific enough about how much chicken to make (a package of chicken parts? A fryer?). I ended up having to double my rice mixture for the amount of chicken I had and ended up with about eight servings. It took a lot longer that I’d hoped. I also think I should have chosen a dryer wine. The fruitiness of the wine almost overpowers the spices in the dish, although perhaps if I’d included the saffron (or olives…ugh) it would have balanced out. Well, that said, next time I make it, it will be so easy and the chicken was incredibly moist and delicious! Yay.

Now I have to get back to work. Grading papers is my least-favorite part of teaching, but I just have to get it done. Besides, they’re dying to know how they did. Every day, they’re all, “Do you tell us our grades today?” They’re so eager!

Chicken La Bodega

This recipe is from "Saucepans and the Single Girl" by Jinx Morgan and Judy Perry. They first wrote it when they were poor girls just out of college in 1965. It's charming, and the recipes seem pretty easy, with normal ingredients. (You know how the recipes in most cookbooks include several things items you have to buy just for that recipe and otherwise will never use again? There doesn't seem to be much of that in this book.) Here's Chicken La Bodega with my adjustments in bold.

Chicken La Bodega

1 pkg. Chicken (frozen fryer or 4 thighs)

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. paprika

⅓ c. olive oil

3 T butter

¼ tsp. saffron

1 c uncooked rice (I used instant whole grain brown rice)

1 c white wine

1 c chicken stock

Bay leaves (3 or 4)

½ c. ripe olives, pitted

Peas to taste (I suggest ½ lb. or less. Probably much less, if you’re including olives.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Pat chicken with a damp paper towel and season with salt and paprika. Brown slowly in olive oil. In another pan, melt butter and stir in saffron and rice. Toast rice until golden brown, stirring often for 10 minutes. (The cookbook said occasionally, but that’s how scorching happens, my friends.) Add wine and chicken stock. Simmer covered for 15 minutes. (My chicken finished before the rice. That’s fine. Just set it on a cool burner until you’re ready to use it.) Place bay leaves in casserole dish. Add rice, drained chicken and olives (or not). Bake 40 minutes *. Add peas and heat. Remove bay leaves before serving.

*These casseroles are designed so you can start them one day, then where you see the star you can store them. (This is handy for dinner dates, the main focus of the book.) The next day, preheat the oven, then pop the casserole in and heat it until it bubbles. The only thing the authors weren’t clear about was…what if you do it all in one day? I think I baked it 30 minutes, added the peas and let it go the last 10 minutes (40 total). It turned out great! It’s easy and so scrumptious.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Doubt and renewal.

I spent a lot of last weekend reading and getting ready to write a big paper. Monday was teaching, more reading, then my Teaching college composition class. Tuesday was…you guessed it! READING! The reading load is really heavy. I have to read all the books an articles assigned to me, as well as whatever I assign for my students to read and any assignment they turn in to me. (The books at left aren't the books I get to read. They're actually the books I bought with the awesome gift certificate Madrid and Chris gave me. Thanks a billion, guys! I realized, as a poet, I should own some poetry and a poetry-market guide. Luckily, there's a break coming up when I might get to read non-assigned books.)

On top of that, I’m trying to teach my students analysis, which is complicated. No one really taught me to do it. In college, Nadine just kept handing me piles of well-written papers. It’s not like reading them really helped me figure out the steps of analysis. It’s more like I read enough of them that a pattern formed in my brain, and soon my writing came out in that pattern. Some people are naturally good at writing, and I’m one of them. The disadvantage is that I don’t know how I do certain things, I just do them.

I had the same problem when trying to help my struggling readers in the Bronx. Some of them had a second grade reading level in the eighth grade. I had a second grade reading level when I was, what, six? So to help them I had to do a ton of research. Well, this is the same way. I’ve been asking my boss and my coworkers, as well as searching the internet. During today's (Friday’s) class (when I was being observed by a classmate for Teaching Composition assignment) they really seemed to get it, though. YAY! It made me feel much better after Tuesday and Wednesday, which were rough.

Tuesday I was working hard on research for my paper on Emma. Then it was time for poetry class. It was a good class until we got to my poem “On Whiteness.” Basically, they tore it apart. Well, that’s how it felt. I may be over-sensitive. I noticed tons an tons of suggestions and critiques and no compliments. I think every other student’s poem received at least some praise. They thought my poem left readers with too many questions and perhaps didn’t earn the last two lines or live up to the title. At the end, our teacher Tim told me, “Keep going with that one.” I managed to hide my feelings as I asked, “Well, which part did you like?” He and the most vocal student in the class agreed that my topic was bold and intriguing.

Okay, let me say that some of the comments were warranted. There are things in the poem that make perfect sense if you’re from Iowa, but don’t if you’re not. I can see the topic making a good new poem, but then do I try to fix the old one or just let it die? Can’t poems be enigmatic? And I thought it was one of my best poems. Didn’t my language or rhythms connect with anyone?

I went home and cried. I admit it. I was shaken. They only like the topic? If this were Project Runway, it would be like saying, “I hate the design, the cut, the color, and how you sewed it, but I love that you chose to make a dress out of velvet. Keep going with that one.” If they didn’t like anything but the topic of what I had considered one of my best poems, what was I doing here? I was so upset that I couldn’t do the work I needed to do for a paper due the next day. I mean literally couldn’t do it. My eyes were blurred with tears. Eventually I just went to bed.

Wednesday I got up early to do my lesson planning, taught my class, worked on my paper from 9-noon, went to a noon meeting, then worked on my paper again from noon until right before class started at 4 p.m. People in my office kept talking to me and around me (eight of us share a room with four desks, and several of my office mates came and went during that time). It was distracting, but the library or my apartment would have been as bad or worse.

Well, hopefully there were no glaring problems in my paper. I hope I got at least a B. Then after class, I got roped into a Graduate Students of English meeting. I overheard one classmate, Jake (I think), saying he was going for Thai food. I LOVE Thai food, and haven’t found a restaurant that delivers here, so I hitched a ride with him. He’s an interesting guy. After high school, he enlisted because his family in rural Nebraska was so poor. “Didn’t want to end up up to your eyeballs in debt, huh?” “Yeah. I ended up up to my eyeballs in blood instead. Well, it was a choice.” Jake had to take a break from grad school for a few years when he was diagnosed with fatal cancer. He’s in remission now, and loving much life. Talk about an interesting perspective, right?

Almost dying (first in the armed forces, then from cancer) really made Jake focus on what he wants in life. He is here now because it's what he wants most in life. So am I. Even when it's hard, I have to remember that.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Money and career: starting to sort it out.

This week I got my first paycheck. Between my full ride (or as they called it on my bill “100% graduate tuition exemption,” God bless ‘em!) and my 10000/yr stipend, I’m going to be okay! Post-taxes, it comes out to…well, less, but not as much less as I’d feared. I’m technically below the poverty line, yet I’m luckier than so many of my grad-school compatriots. Grad school is the only place in America (outside the unemployment line) where you feel rich for making ten grand a year.

It was helpful that I scrimped all year to pay off all my credit cards, and Tom let me stay with him all July rent-free. Then, all August I stayed with my parents rent-free and got all my meals free. All I had to buy was the occasional tank of gas. Unfortunately, I still owe my parents some money.

There was a slight crisis a while back. My school didn’t reserve any city taxes from my paycheck, so I had to pay up big-time, not to mention a bill I had to pay to Fordham. That pretty much drained my savings, but I had to move from Spanish Harlem to Harlem. Suddenly I needed to rent a moving truck, first month’s rent, last month’s rent and deposit. Ouch. In New York, that’s a crazy-lot of cash, which I still owe Mom and Dad. I’m not ashamed of it, but it does bother me. I want to be an independent grown-up. Well, we all need a little help sometimes, right?

I’m hoping that in three years, with summer jobs, I can make enough to pay my bills, pay back Mom and Dad, buy a cheap car (a student told me she got a 2007 in perfect condition from the local police for less than $1000) with registration and insurance, etc., and have enough cash left over to move and establish myself wherever I need to go. I may be dreaming, though. Unless I win the lottery. Of course, first I’d have to play the lottery. Gambling just doesn’t suit me, but it’s nice to dream.

On the other hand, I may decide to get a PhD here, in which case I’d have 5 years to save up some cash. Unless I decided to get a PhD elsewhere. Oh, who knows. Part of me looks forward to the time when my life will be a little more settled. I’m getting tired of starting over time after time. Since leaving home for BVU, the longest I’ve lived anyplace was two years in the Spanish Harlem apartment. I just keep starting over any over. On the other hand, I feel like I’m in just the right place now. I’m trying to just enjoy the adventure of it all. I think coming here was the right choice.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lemon Drop

Sept. 8&9- Yep, I was right. Nothing happened over the weekend. I used an online program to check my physical fitness ( or some such site). According to them, my real age isn’t 27, it’s 30. I eat too much red meat and not enough fish, vegetables and whole grains. They also suggest some more vitamins (how many pills should a girl have to swallow in a day?) and more strength training. (I walk some and do some yoga, but no weight training, etc.) Okay. I’m trying to stay as healthy as possible since insurance doesn’t seem to make financial sense at this point.

Sept. 10- Monday I had a lot of fun teaching again, yay! It’s so great to have a job you like. Sept. 11- Tuesday I was busy, busy, busy with office hours and studying and running to the store, then going to poetry class. Poetry class was great. I wrote a poem in class and another on the walk home. . I was in such a good mood when I got home that I did an impromptu song and dance (sort of a pseudo-polka…proof positive that deep down I’m a geek. A proud, German geek, but a geek nonetheless).

Sept. 12- Wednesday was more teaching: my students had a great peer editing session. Well, there was one misstep. Hee. Okay, this is embarrassing. I had a tickle in my throat, and they were peer editing. I didn’t really have to talk, so I popped a lemon drop in my mouth. One young woman raised her hand, so I went over to her group to answer her question.

While we were talking, I looked down for a second and…well, I guess my mouth was open, and…yep. The lemon drop dropped out of my mouth and onto a student’s bag. I gasped. “What?” the group asked, “What’s the matter?” “Oh, this is so embarrassing,” I replied, “Okay, I had this candy in my mouth and it fell out on your bag.” Then I reached down to grab the candy and it proceeded to fall in her bag. “NO! I am so sorry.” I reached in and gingerly lifted the candy out and tossed it in the trash. “It’s okay,” they all kept assuring me, “it’s just a candy.” “Yeah,” I replied, “but now I’ll be the only teacher in history with ‘she spit candy in my bag’ written on a student evaluation.” They all laughed, though, so I laughed, which they seemed to appreciate. Do things like this happen to other people, or am I the only one? Maybe I’m the only one willing to broadcast her embarrassing moments.

That day, I also had a big presentation to give (25% of my 19th Century British Lit. grade). I was so nervous, but I think I pulled it together pretty well. I still have to finish the paper that goes along with the speech. When I asked for advice, the teacher asked that I change the focus a little bit. Check. I’m still a little nervous, but I’m trying my best.

Sept. 14- Thursday, writing day, I got up and wrote a few poems and did a little more polishing on my portfolio. Sept. 15-Friday my lesson wasn’t focused enough, but I learned from the experience. Even though I didn’t connect with my students as well as I usually do, they were still attentive and nice. My students were also nervous about handing in their first papers to me on Monday. They kept saying they wanted help, so I added office hours from 1-4. Actually, I ended up in my office from 1 to 5. You know how many students showed up? None. Yep. Not one. Was I surprised? Not really. At least I got some reading done.

That night there was a party for the MFA people. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around until it was too late to walk there. I don’t walk after dark in neighborhoods I don’t know. Neither of my roomies with a car was around. I didn’t want to splurge for a cab. I have the phone number of one girl with a car, but she was the one throwing the party. So no party for me. Instead, I caught up on sleep. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of parties in the future.

My social life is the one thing that’s lacking here. I miss Tom, of course, and I miss my best girlfriends. I miss having people around to hug and laugh with, in that way best friends laugh together. I’ve made some casual-chatting friends, but I haven’t had any of those “A-ha!” moments when you meet a friend and know right away you’ll be friends forever. I found some at BVU, and I found one in Spain. I found some in NYC, and now I need to find some here. Where are they hiding?

Friday, September 07, 2007

I might actually be GOOD at this teaching thing!

Soon I shall return to a more narrative-like method of storytelling. Right now it's all listy, but lists are so much faster!

Sept. 1, 2 and 3 - I don’t remember distinctly what happened which day over the weekend. I know most of my time was spent reading, doing little apartment chores and walking around the neighborhood. I snapped a pretty picture of a moth or butterfly. I found some restaurants that I want to check out in the future and a grocery store about 20 blocks away. I’m going to keep looking for a closer one.

Tuesday, Sept 4 - Office hours were sweaty, as the Batten Arts and Letters building is under construction and for some reason, the air conditioning cut out. My office is a room with four desks. Eight of us share four desks, although I’ve never seen more than three of us in the room at the same time. One girl working in there is a linguistics student. She tells me that an ugly accent is spreading west and south. It’s halfway through Iowa RIGHT NOW! It’s a vowel-lift…that Chi-cahh-go (As opposed to Chi-cog-o) thing, you know? Why is it happening? They’re not sure, but the people it’s happening to CAN’T HEAR IT, so they can’t resist. Listen to each other, Midwestern friends! Guard your vowels. Keep them round and pretty.

Wednesday, Sept. 5 - Teaching, YAY! I love teaching. It rocks. It rules! We had class mostly workshop style. I had the students discuss possible memoir topics in pairs and went around discussing their topic, conferencing with each person. (It’s amazing how easy that is when everyone sits down, doesn’t steal anything and embraces non-violence.) Everyday, I ask my students for feedback and suggestions, and when I asked, “So, do you guys like workshop-style classes like this?” they responded with a resounding “Yes!” It’s the loudest I’ve ever heard them.

That night I had 19th Century British lit, which was pretty easy. Last class and this class we’ve been watching an educational movie on Queen Vicoria’s reign. All we had to do was take notes. That night I got to chat with Rose, who was departing for the Dominican Republic where her husboyfriend is working. I love that girl. Whenever we’re going through life transitions, we cheer each other through it.

Thursday, Sept. 6 - Writing day! I spent a lot of time on my poetry portfolio, reading and planning my lesson, not to mention chatting on the phone with Tom for an hour and a half.

Friday, Sept. 7 - Teaching, Yay! I LOVE TEACHING! Today we worked on how to read critically. I read them a paragraph from a story by Annie Dillard. First they summarized. (Annie learns to play football.) Then they inferred at the basic level (Annie is a tomboy). Then they looked for the author’s message. (She wrote that tackling is only successful if you give everything you have. If you don’t, you end up face-down in the dirt or kicked in the face. It’s a metaphor for life.) We got so much information out of one paragraph.

Light bulbs were coming on over heads all around the room. I could just see it, that “Oh!” moment! It reminded me of when I learned to read critically in college. It changed everything for me, and this might be that moment for them. Wow. My last job really shook my confidence as a teacher, and this experience is making me feel so much better. A few students even stayed after class to thank me! Wow.

I taught, then created new message forums on the course’s online site and commented on ten papers (just nine to go). Then I went home and researched plane tickets with a Kim Possible marathon in the background.

Right now, it looks like it’ll be cheaper for me to fly to NYC, hang out there a few days, fly to Des Moines, stay about a week, then back to New York until after New Year. How can flying from Norfolk to New York to Des Moines to New York to Norfolk be cheaper? Don’t know. It just is. If I buy bus tickets instead of plane tickets, I save even more…well, that’s if my friends have a place for me to camp when I’m there.

And now you're all up-to-date. Since I have a ton of reading to do this weekend, I doubt anything internet-worthy will happen any time soon. Whatever. I get a little stir-crazy, but I'm enjoying academia, teaching people who don't comment on or ask about my physical appearance, clothing, love life, etc., and working for people who believe in my talents.