Just checking in…

I have nothing interesting to say.  Sorry!  Just checking in to let you know I’m still out here.  When I took a first aid class once, they said you should ask three questions about a person in distress:  Is she breathing?  Is she bleeding?  Is she comfy?  Well, I’m okay on the first two….  Not sure about the last.  But I can say that not blogging has freed up just enough of a smidgin of time for me to be able to stay caught up in my grading…. SO FAR!  LOL 🙂

I tell you what…here is another link to a funny video.  Who says I don’t think of my friends…?!

Again, I can’t get this to show up directly into my post (anyone know how to do that if it isn’t YouTube?)  But I laughed out loud at this kid. She is too precious in her wily storytelling ways!

the hippo was allergic to magic

Amelie rocks!

Miscellaneous Meme

Praying to Darwin tagged me (well, anyone who was reading her, actually!) and I promised a response. Here goes:

What I Was Doing 10 Years Ago

June 1998: Living in Palouse, WA, a town of 1,000 people located about 17 miles from Pullman, WA, a city of 35,000 and the metropolis of the region. I was on unofficial leave from my Ph.D. program, having postponed finishing my dissertation due to a difficult pregnancy. I had been home caring for our eight-month old and having a blast. He was a great baby who took naps, laughed a lot, and was endlessly curious! But by today’s date in 1998, I had embarked on a marathon revision session to finish the dissertation over the summer so I could graduate and work as an adjunct professor in the fall. I made it. On this date ten years ago, though, I didn’t know if I’d make it. I didn’t know that I’d eventually publish that dissertation, that I’d get a job as a real live professor, that in ten years I’d be scrambling to finish another manuscript over the summer….

Five Things on My To-Do List Today

  1. Go to my office to meet up with the tech guy and receive my new laptop computer and laser printer! Yee haw — wireless and wonderful! My old one is a 2001 model. 😦
  2. Finish the laundry. (Why is that item always on my list?)
  3. Help my son revise and edit his letter to IHOP complaining that their kid’s meals come with styrofoam cups. (I’ve got him started on a summer home school program of my own design to help him improve his writing process, spelling, and punctuation skills. He’s fine for his grade level, say his teachers, but I’m an English Professor. I can’t have a ten-year-old son who spells dinner: chicen. Also, I’m a sadist.)
  4. Start the rough draft of an article I was commissioned to write.
  5. Bring the piles of stuff in my bedroom up into the attic for the “one day I’m going to have a garage sale” pile.

Things I Would Do If I Were a Billionaire

Buy my sister a house and pay for her to go to grad school full-time.

Quit our jobs and move back to the Pacific Northwest, where we would buy or build a totally green home.

And with the bulk of the money, I imagine we’d start a charitable foundation and my husband and I would run it. We’d give grants to worthy projects to save the world and all that. Not sure how far a billion dollars would go, but we’d do what we could to help.

Three of My Bad Habits

  1. talking too much when I’m nervous
  2. laughing too much when I’m nervous
  3. saying stupid things when I’m nervous

Five Jobs I’ve Had

  1. “Receptionist” (AKA babysitter) for a home office. What a joke. This was merely a glorified (hardly) babysitting job. The house was so filthy that I spent most days cleaning. Ugh. Kids were not too bad. Oh, and I learned how to fry an egg cause that’s all they’d eat for breakfast.
  2. Worked for a department store called Weinstocks in their lingerie department. Stapled my thumb one day. Still gives me the creeps.
  3. Janitor, cleaning up the dining hall at my college after dinner. Amazing what I found on the floors — used to dread spaghetti and meatball days. I guess those pesky meatballs just roll off the plates all by themselves. Oops!
  4. Door-to-door sales. Yeh, that’s even worse than stapling your own flesh. I sold books in Alabama one summer for the Southwestern Book Co. Part of the way they are successful is they make their sales help (all college students) drive clear across the country to an alien world. That way it makes it a lot harder to give up and go home when it gets tough. I did okay at this job, but I wasn’t quite bold or enthusiastic enough to be a star.
  5. Library assistant — I shelved journal articles and books in the reference section of my college library. Great job to help pay the bills for school — clean, quiet, and no knocking on doors.

Five Books I’ve Recently Read

  1. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Still a great read after a dozen times reading it!
  2. Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal by Diana M. Raab. I thought this would be a help for me as I write my Grandma’s memoir. It was. It showed me that I can do a lot better than stuff that’s already published.
  3. Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran. This book taught me that I have a long way to go to really write well. Beautiful and engaging. How can this be her first book?
  4. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. A MUST READ! Awesome book, a real page-turner. I reviewed it earlier. See my Good Books category on the sidebar.
  5. Tales From Nowhere: Unexpected Stories from Unexpected Places edited by Don George. I absolutely loved this collection of travel essays. a fun and intriguing read. Still thinking about the stories…

That’s it! I’ll follow Praying to Darwin‘s lead and leave it up to readers to decide to do this meme themselves.

More Random Thoughts After a Lazy Afternoon in Peru

Almost immediately upon publishing my last post, I felt the unfairness of leaving it there without a follow up on a more positive note.  Here is my coda, written tonight after an afternoon spent reading in my hotel room here in Casma.  When I am sick, I like to read.  So it was VERY helpful to me today to be able to spend some time reading a good novel all alone in my own world.  I didn´t even have any guilt about this break, as M. and JK. also chose to take the afternoon off!  We are all feeling done in by the heat, and there is no work we can do on a Sunday here.  No transportation to take us up to any villages until tomorrow. So here are five more words for you, with shorter explanations only becasue we are going to dinner soon….

Chivalry.  Hospitality. Ingenuity. Friendliness. Hope.

Chivalry. I have been quite astounded at the chivalry of our Peruvian grad students, M and R.  They drop everything if they see you need help and do all they can to make us gringos comfortable. M ran (literally) back to a restaurant where we had lunch today to look for JK´s hat, which ended up being in her daypack after all.  R always carries my stuff, even when I can handle it.  These guys are true gentlemen. They look after us so well!

Hospitality.  In Huacuy, in the middle of nowhere at 7,000 ft., Fonso asked me if we wanted lunch.  We were trying to do a quick install there of a vaccine fridge (with solar panels) but such things are never quick.  He mentioned arroz, so I figured it´d be a little rice and that´s it.  Instead, an hour later Fonso came back and told us the meal was ready.  He had prepared not only rice but an onion salad common in Peru and a main dish made with ¨Anchovies¨which are really large sardines stewed in a sauce of tomatoes and spices.  He showed us the can of anchovies, and it was a food subsidy can, not for resale.  In other words the equivalent of our government-dispensed cheese. He was sharing with us his government issue food.

Ingenuity.  Every time I turn around, I hear a story about some Peruvians who figure their way out of a jam using ingenious methods.  They know, so often, better than we how to do something.  We give them carefully drawn plans for a pump house and they make it in a way that it will ACTUALLY work!   They know how to do much with little.  Reminds me of what Grandma told me of her family on the homestead.

Friendliness. The internet cafe guy, Roberto, I think is his name, came running down the street the day we arrived back in Casma and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  He is the one I wrote about earlier who was speaking to me and whom I did not understand.  We had such a nice chat that first day after I was done blogging and was waiting for mi amigos, that I became HIS amiga.  Every time I come here, the women at the kiosks on the sidewalk yell to Roberto that his Amiga is here!

Hope. Yes, hope springs eternal in Peru. Hope that living conditions will get better.  Hope that the gringos will be able to do the impossible and possilbe alike.  (No pressure there.)  Hope that if they keep working, they can make a life for themselves filled with health and love and all good things.

Amazing how spending the afternoon reading helped me change my attitude so completely….  I was reading (and finished) Thornton Wilder´s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which takes place in Peru. And I will say right now that it is an excellent book, well deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. It´s short, so I was able to finish the whole thing.  And it deals with themes I care about: love and grief, big questions like why certain things happen to certain people.  Reading it today gave me the larger perspective I needed.

My compadres are ready to go eat now, so I will just leave you with one quote from the end of the book: ¨But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.¨

The Poor Helping the Poor: Women “crazy for God” in a Lima Barrio and Other Stuff I’ve Been Reading

This semester I’ve been working with a student who is going on our service-learning trip to Peru in January. She needed an additional General Education class in liberal arts to graduate in the spring, so I agreed to do an Introduction to Gender Studies directed study with her on women in Peru (spread out over the school year). I figured this helped the student but would also give me a formalized opportunity to learn more about the country to which I am traveling soon. And, wow, has it been interesting!

We spent most of the semester reading and discussing seven short stories written by Peruvian women. These are collected in the book, Fire from the Andes: Short Fiction by Women from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, edited and translated by Susan E. Benner and Kathy S. Leonard. The stories were very interesting and sometimes difficult, inlcuding a magical realism piece with supernatural green slime and multiplying twins, a story about a man’s shadow who severs herself from him, and a story told from the perspective of a young female terrorist. It was particularly interting discussing these stories with the Engineering student with whom I was working, as this stuff is pretty foreign to her typical studies.

Oh, and also, we began by reading two travel literature stories about American women who had gone to Peru. These are in the collection called The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007: True Stories from Around the World, edited by Lucy McCauley. We read Barbara Kingsolver’s essay about going to Peru with a Heifer International group and observing the effects of that organization’s work, and we read Jennifer Sieg’s “The Cuy of cooking” about being served roasted guinea pig while in the Andes. (How many Weight Watchers points is cuy, anyway…?!)

Now we are reading The Call of God: Women Doing Theology in Peru by Tom Powers, S.J. This book describes and analyzes the work being done by women in one of the poorest neighborhoods (barrios) of Lima, one of the largest cities in the world (over 8 miliion). A full 49% of Lima’s residents live below the poverty level. The neighborhood discussed is nicknamed El Agustino (and is ranked as the second poorest barrio in Lima), and the women who are “doing theology,” a theology of action, there are a part of an organization founded by the poor and for the poor: Servicios Educativos El Agustino (SEA). Actually they work in multiple smaller organizations under the umbrella of the SEA, from Cup of Milk (an infant nutrition program), to Communal kitchens and bakeries, to education coops, to facilitating organizations for micro-enterprises, etc.

Now, as luck would have it, it just so happens that one of our graduate students in solar engineering (who is going on our trip and who is from Peru) spent his childhood growing up in El Agustino. We discovered this one day while chatting. What an amazing coincidence! That student’s story is inspirational — a gripping tale of how hard work and perseverance brought a family from the depths of poverty to a decent standard of living, and how a yound man is determined to give back to his country through becoming educated.

I have asked this grad student to see if he can arrange for my undergraduate student and me to go to the SEA in El Agustino the day after we arrive in Peru. He seemed excited to make this side trip with us. The project goals, however, must come first, and if we are needed for other purposes, then we won’t be able to spare the time. If we are able to squeeze it in, that visit will take place THIS Saturday (Jan. 5)! I will try to get to an internet cafe on late Sat. if I can and let you know if we got to visit El Agustino.

I admire these women so much. As I read about their work and their dedication to helping their neighbors on a very practical level as an expression of their faith — indeed, as a call from God — I am amazed at their courage and strength. One woman, Sr. Serrano, said:

“I quit my job and I got involved — and I have never regretted it. Eventually I was elected … President of the Federation of Communal Dining Rooms of Lima and Callao …. This was just when the violence [terrorists caused major disruption in the country in the 80s and 90s] was escalating in Peru and I received several death threats from the terrorists. I guess that any sane person would have quit and gone into hiding. So I guess I am saying I am loca — crazy for God, if you will. Really deep down I was scared and I was conscious of the danger. But when I would go out, I would commend myself to God and I felt that God was carrying me.”

Of course, this can’t help but make us think of the recent assassination of Benezir Bhutto, who also expressed a similar sentiment to her friends. The price some are willing to pay, the risk they will take to help their country! I just can’t see myself being able to stand against such threats so bravely, however much I might wish to be that selfless and strong.

I’ll leave you with another quotation which epitomizes the work these women do in El Agustino. The daughter of Sr. Serrano says:

“My mother (Benedicta) has a little plaque that says, ‘Poverty is no disgrace. It is inconvenient.’ She does not mean to lessen the dehumanizing influence of poverty. But she will not admit that it is a disgrace, because we are poor. I remember her telling us, when food was not available, that Jesus invites each one of us to give up what we have in this world and to help those who are poor. Look, we are poor helping those who are more poor. If everyone did this, no one would go hungry or homeless or die unnecessarily because of the lack of a common medicine.”

If everyone did this….

I am Bilbo…surprisingly

My husband and I just started reading The Hobbit to our ten-year old son. We’d been thinking of doing this for a while, and the timing was finally right. I was very surprised to discover how much the first chapter spoke to my current situation so pointedly. In other words, I felt as if I were Bilbo Baggins about to set off on an adventure when all I really want is to stay home in my comfy hole, eating lefse and reading good books. Ah, but Bilbo’s “Tookish side” is awakened by the tales of the dwarves who invade his cozy space, and before he knows what he’s done, he has boldly proclaimed that he will join the brave band in their daring adventure. And here I am getting ready to go off to lord-knows-where in rural Peru, scared witless like poor Bilbo.

Read on and see what I mean:

Bilbo’s home is charaterzed primarily by its “comfort” and the proposed journey is dangerous.

“…people considered [the Bagginses] very respectable, … because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected…. This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained — well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

When Gandalf explains that he has come to Bilbo’s house because of an “adventure,” Bilbo replies, “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today! Good morning! But please come to tea — any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!” Then he kicks himself for inviting Gandalf to come back the next day. He suspects that he should have cut things off right away, irrevocably. But his politeness leads him down a path from which he finds it harder and harder to extricate himself!

When the dwarves begin to arrive the next day, Bilbo must play host, bustling around getting them tea and cakes and beer and wine and eggs and cold chicken and pickles, etc. After tea, he weakly asks, “I suppose you will all stay to supper?” His politeness again.

The dwarves help him clean up but are very rough with his dishes. They tease him with a song: “Chip the glasses and crack the plates! / … / That’s what Bilbo baggins hates.” But they do no harm. Bilbo is anxious nonetheless about these superficial things. Then he learns the story of the devastation of the dwarves’ community by the dragon Smaug and the group’s quest to take back what is rightfully theirs. A noble quest, beside which his fears about broken kitchenware are shameful, or at least childish.

When Bilbo hears Thorin’s declaration, “a journey from which some of us, or perhaps all…may never return,” the hobbit “began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel.” The group is startled by his outburst and finds him “kneeling on the hearthrug, shaking like a jelly that was melting.” Gandalf explains away the reaction as an anomaly, and Bilbo is declared by Gandalf to be a useful personna. He offers a skill none of the others has.

Bilbo’s pride makes him try to live up to Gandalf’s recommendation. “He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce. … ‘Tell me what you want done, [he says] and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.'”

By chapter two is off on the adventure of his life.

So, yeh, I’m going to Peru. The Project Director had faith in my ability to contribute to the work of the group. What business does an English professor — who loves her comfortable home and is a big scaredy-cat quivering on the floor — what business, I ask, do I have in going galivanting off to what might as well be another world with a bunch of ENGINEERS?! They are like an alien race to us humanities folks. Ah, but that unquestioning confidence placed in me…. I am determined to prove that I can be useful.

I must have read The Hobbit ten times in my youth. As my husband began reading it aloud the other night, the words were so familiar and comforting. This story lives deep inside of me. I had forgotten it was there, though. I’m so happy that I have rediscovered it just when I need to be reminded that no matter how afraid we are, we can face our dragons and win. Even the most unlikely of us, lowly English Professors, can be, dare I say … heroes.

I’ll settle for coming back in one piece.

What will I “gain”…? We will all have to wait until I get back on January 20 to find out.

“Yes, Marc, it’s really, really, a true story”: The Terrifying Tale of Sheep Rock

“It’s a terrifying tale,” I let slip as I watched the five boys scoot closer to the edge of a boulder which they had ascended, pinecones and leaves flying at each other on the way up. “I don’t know if you boys can handle it.”

They rose to the bait easily with shouts of bravery. Ha! That’s a clever trick, I thought. Redirect, redirect.

“Well, if you’re sure…?”

Whoops and hollers.

“Okay, but you have to come over here and sit under this particular rock. Honey, show ’em.”

My son scampered over to a much bigger boulder and sat with back to an alcove, rock leaning out over his head. His four birthday party guests gathered next to him.

“First off, I tell you that this is an absolutely TRUE story. I can prove it, too. This REALLY happened.”

Marc, the mischievous one of the group, the one my son idolizes (of course), expressed his doubt. He is very clever and sees my face. I launch into the tale anyway, enlisting the boys’ help for sound effects at the appropriate time.

In brief, and without sound effects, here is the tale: A very long time ago, about 100 years or so, a farmer lost some sheep in the terrain that is now the local State Forest. A brutal nor’easter blizzard descended on the region, and the sheep were presumed dead. After the snow stopped, however, they were found huddled together — alive — in the alcove of a huge rock that had sheltered them from the northeasterly wind. To this day the spot is called Sheep Rock.

Not exactly terrifying? Of course not. But it got them to stop throwing pine needles and pinecones at each other and climbing on a dangerous rock, and I didn’t even have to tell them to get down. I did, to my credit, make the interruption worth their while, I think. There were FIVE sheep huddled right where the 5 boys were sitting (and I made them bleat at the end, which was much more entertaining for me than their hollering!) And the farmer’s name, which I admiitted not knowing, was Farmer Smith, Elmer, Smith, that is. He had a TEN year old boy named Fudd, who was the one to discover the sheep under the rock. Etcetera…

Ah, let ’em climb and holler, you say? I did. Believe me, that was not something I expected to be able to stop. No, I just wanted to have a bit of storytelling fun with the boys, too. One boy got a real kick out of taking pictures of me while I was telling the story with my wildly gesticulating hands and crazy faces. (I may live to regret that!) We got cheap (75 cents each at Discount Madness) reusable 35 mm cameras for the kids as party favors, and they brought them on the hike. My son didn’t think the boys would want to take pictures, but all but one snapped away.

Thus ends the double-digits birthday week. Not exactly ten days of celebrating, but nearly so! To recap: (1) Birthday party at indoor playground with younger friends who played an imagination game the kids made up last year: the DRAGON GAME. Cake shaped like a dragon head. (2) Attended Chinese acrobat performance with one special friend and went out for pizza afterwards. (3) Birthday itself fell mid-week, and we went to TGIF’s, and I was thrilled to discover a pretty Weight Watcher’s friendly menu. Son got ten gifts from us. Excessive? You judge: nail clippers, new mittens, toe socks, a humorous shirt, three books, playdough, fishing rod and reel. Biggest hit: toe socks. I finally got him to take them off after four days (he kept fishing them out of the laundry and putting them back on!)

Finally, (4) a low-tech hike in the woods with four other boys. Storytelling, rock-climbing, pinecone war, quicksand stick sinking at the swamp. Cake with “real” rocks (ok, jelly bean rocks, but they looked real) and a graham crack path lined with self lighting candles (paper links them all together, and you just light one end). No gifts. Party-goes donated money to help our son buy a llama for a family in Peru through Heifer International. Collected just enough to reach that goal. He is so proud.

I’m blathering on, I suspect. So I’ll end with this one thought. Stories are powerful. I honestly had my doubts that the boys would sit still for my Sheep Rock story. But there’s something deep inside us, I believe, hard-wired into us as human beings, that draws us to story. At the end, when I showed them the unnoticed carving of the words “Sheep Rock…etc.” high above their heads, they were amazed that the story was, indeed, true.

On the way home, as three of the boys, including my son, carried home an immense log, I overheard my son telling his friends, “See that red house up ahead on the right? It’s haunted. Nobody lives there, but sometimes smoke comes out of the chimney” As I walked past them, I added, “That’s true. Absolutely true.”

“My” NaNoWriMo

Thanks for the encouragement to give National Novel Writing Month a go, guys! I appreciate the vote of confidence. Having thought about it a lot, I’ve decided on a modified plan for participation. Here’s what I mean…

Today’s NaNo pep talk from Tom Robbins says: “You need not have your ending in mind before you commence. Indeed, you need not be certain of exactly what’s going to transpire on page 2. If you know the whole story in advance, your novel is probably dead before you begin it.” This clinched it for me. I’m just not able to participate in NOVEL writing month. I know exactly what happens in my story because it actually happened. It’s the story of my grandmother’s family. And while I appreciate the way Robbins characterizes writing as “a journey, a voyage, an adventure,” I disagree about how real writers just intuit where to go in their writing and this ability is a “gift from the gods.” Nonsense.

When the Romantic poets in the early 19th century in England began to become popular, they transformed the way that Westerners think about creative writing. They talked of inspiration and passion, spontaneity and giftedness. Before that, true art was considered, by and large, to be something a person could create through patience, hard work, and adherence to convention — literary art was a craft. While I don’t think I would go so far as to say the neo-classicists had it right, I think the Romantics did kinda messed us up. Everybody seems to think good writing happens by chance — either you’ve got the gift or you don’t. As Robbins says, “Until you undo the ribbons [of the “package” you’ve been given] you can never be sure” whether you have that gift or not. I just don’t see things this way.

This Romanticization of writing is, I think, ultimately discouraging for would-be writers, who come to have unreasonably high expectations of themselves and thus get far too easiy discouraged when they find they do not “have the gift.” But these same folks could be tremendously good writers if they saw writing as something that can be learned. Good writing takes mostly hard work, commitment, and persistence, and a little bit of courageous risk-taking. At least that’s my opinion. But you all can see, can’t you, how this notion of writing as a gift fits into the American fast-food nation kinda way we approach life. Look at the last fifty years. Savings are down. Credit debt is up. We aren’t exactly a culture known for patient diligence — we want the glamour of having written a bestseller in one month. (I know this is an exaggeration, but don’t you think deep down NaNo appeals to some people because this is exactly what they are hoping for? And don’t you think many participants — even those who are not expecting to write the rgeat American novel — get down on themselves because they find that their work isn’t really that good, and they think they just don’t have what it takes?)

SO…what will MY NaNoWriMo be? Well, the part that appeals to me most is the writing of a minimum number of words each day for a month, on average. That’s a nice prod to get folks out there doing the work of writing. I like the idea of camaraderie, of course, but what I am writing isn’t like what most folks are doing, and I already find it hard to relate. I do like reading the pep talks, and I will take from them what I can, but these, too, may not prove terribly helpful (except in giving me something to blog about). One of the best things about NaNo and something I wholeheartedly endorse is the idea that first drafts should be written quickly and without a lot of editing or revision. This is excellent advice. While Grandma’s book is already in rough draft form, I have only revised seven chapters, so the rest is still raw and waiting to become MY first draft. So I could try to rip through that quickly, knowing that in Feb., I’ll be going back to it.

My pledge, then: I solemly swear to write, on average, 6 pages of TimesRoman, 12 pt., 1 in. margin text every day this month. I may not always be writing Grandma’s book (I have an editing gig for which I need to write an introduction, and I have some other articles on teaching that I want to compose), but I will write every day, nonetheless. When I am writing this month, I will try to do so without focusing a great deal on editing. If I want to edit and revise some of the work I complete, that will not count towards my daily word count goal unless that work means I completely rewrite a piece.

Now, on to those six pages!