No Day But Today

Location: South Boston, VA, United States

I am a full-time teacher of Literature and Art History at a private school in Virginia, and hold the MA in medieval literature from Longwood University. My research interests include various topics in Classical Studies, Medieval/Renaissance studies, Neomedievalism, Romanticism, the Gothic, Art History, especially Art as Propoganda, Portraiture, and Impressionism, Women's Studies and Genocide Studies.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Working Mom, grad School and Theatre, Oh My!

I'm beginning to wonder if I actually do deserve the bizarre looks people flash me when I get to talking about my life right now. Because even as I'm listening to the words coming out of my mouth, I'm thinking right along with them: "My God! If this were someone else saying this, I would think she was insane!"

We are five weeks into the term at the high school at which I teach 6 classes a day. My course offerings this term are Shakespeare's Latin Plays, British Literature I, Early American Writing, Epic Literature, Women's Literature, and Greek and Roman Art and Architecture. In addition to teaching, I also conduct the SAT Writing prep course and am in the midst of Carmina Burana rehearsals for the student performance, of which I am the musical director.

Jump to my "other" academic life: I'm taking two graduate classes two nights a week - one in Contemporary British Literature (all you need to know in order to understand what this entails is that we are reading Ulysses) and the other on Chaucer. Needless to say, it's getting hard to change gears between these two courses, let alone the classes I teach! Right now, I'm working on a presenation on James Joyce and Politics for next week, a paper for the Chaucer class for the week after that, and a paper again for the Joyce class the week after that. (Did I mention, I'm a full-time high school teacher?) I also, incidentally, live an hour and twenty minutes from the university at which I'm doing my graduate studies.

But wait, there's more!

I am also playing the lead female role in Don't Dress for Dinner. I was roped into this when the originally cast actor bowed out halfway through rehearsals. You heard me - I had three weeks to get the part down. We go on stage in two weeks. There are performances both weekends. Immediately following that, I am producing our Tempest.

But wait, there's more!

I'm also researching an article for publication. The tentative title for this article is :Socio-political Subtexts in Royal Portraiture: Elizabeth I and II of England. The deadline for submission for the journal for which I have this in mind is...April 30.

But wait! There's MORE!

As already alluded to in multiple entries in this blog, I am also the loving and doting mother of a two (almost three!) year old daughter and the fairly-attentive wife of one very wonderful and supportive husband.

Full-time teacher, Graduate Student, Full-Time Wife and Mother, know, if I were famous, I'd be elected Cosmo's "Woman of the Year." Oprah's got nothing on me when it comes to a full plate!

Oh, well. I'll settle for a snuggle with my toddler.

Why Are There Only Twenty Four Hours in a Day?

Watching my Darling Daughter in the bathtub playing with her new boat and Little People the other day, I was struck by how much she likes to laugh as she deftly manipulates the Little People into impossible, fantastical situations. The boat capsizes, and all of the Little People scramble for shelter. They reach an island in the foamy, bubbling bathtub sea; it's her knee, and she laughs deep belly laughs as she pops them off of her knee and back into the sudsy water, making gurgling noises to express how they sound speaking under water. The floating purple hippo water-temperature tester is moved into their sight range: "Oh no!" She cries out for them, "It's the big purple hippo! Ahhhhh!" They jump back into the water, only to encounter the Big Rubber Duckie; more screams of anguish. Anna sure likes to see the Little People in peril, or at the very least in deep discomfort; she finds all of it intensely amusing.

I got to thinking: Maybe the Big Guy in the Sky views us as His Little People, and much like my Darling Daughter, he is amused by placing us into impossible situations and chuckling as we scramble to find a way out of the various predicaments into which we find ourselves thrust without so much as a life jacket. My case in point: the twenty-four hour day.

I believe this is the cruelest joke ever played on a plaything. Anna may roll all over Puppy at night, smooshing him into the bedclothes so he can hardly breathe; she may deftly strip the arms and legs off of the Barbie doll someone gave her, she may place all of her stuffed animals into a big pile
and then hurtle herself onto them at top speed, sending them flying, but all of this pales in comparison with the twenty-four hour day.

I looked at the clock this morning and realized that there are only four more days until I have to return to work. Panic ensued. But there were TWO WEEKS in this vacation! Where did all of that time go? I frantically wracked my brain, trying to figure out what had become of the first week and a half. I spent the first two days in bed with a nasty bug; then, there was graduation - an all-day affair, more or less - then there was the Christmas shopping and present-wrapping: another day gone; one day for cleaning, one for cooking, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the family, and two days of painting so our house looked more like a home and less like a white-walled, impersonal space...yes, all of the days were accounted for, and yet - where did that time go?

I look around, and see that our house, with its now beautifully colored walls and accent curtains in each room, has been hit by the Christmas Bomb and requires a good deal of cleaning. But - but - I have so much that needs to be done! Four days left - what a cruel joke! It will take at least a day to get the house clean, and then - syllabi to revise, reading to be done, grad school forms to fill out, course registration - the list of things yet undone that must be completed by January 2nd is staggering. I imagine the big Guy in the Sky is chortling gleefully at my dilemma; I'm in the sudsy water, facing the Big Purple Hippo.

Time flies. When I was a little girl, two weeks seemed such an interminably long period of time. I remember vividly that by about December 27th, I was eager to get back to school; vacation seemed too long and drawn out, there were too many hours in the day to be filled. Now, as an adult, I look woefully at the calendar and wonder how on earth I am to accomplish all that needs doing in such a finite period of time; the days slip by full to bursting, and I despair looking at the trashed family room, library and kitchen, letting my eye wander to the pile of books still to be consulted for material for next term, the folder of syllabi requiring extensive changes and revisions, the grad school letter of acceptance and envelope awaiting a check and a stamp. The dogs are filthy, and need baths desperately. The front porch looks like a bomb hit it; we
must get the trash to the dump! I don't think any of the CDs in our house are actually in their jewel cases.

There are new, unopened painting supplies in the study - I had hoped to get a chance to work on my art over the vacation. There's a stack of pleasure-reading on my nightstand - books I never have the chance to read during a term. My knitting (I was going for a baby blanket) hasn't been touched in days, and will most likely not be touched for days to come. It seems as though I am constantly working, moving, doing something - and yet, there's so much left to do, both necessary and desirable activities. If I don't get to the hair salon, I may be fired for showing up to work with so many split and uneven ends. If I don't take a shower today, my husband may banish me from the bedroom. But how will I ever find the time to squeeze these personal-maintenance activities into an already-crammed schedule of to-dos?

I'm just saying - twenty-four hours. Ha. The Big Guy in the Sky is having a good time playing with his Little People, isn't he?

Happy Howlidays

I wonder why we always look forward to Christmas Vacation?

I mean sure, work is stressful - but as far as I'm concerned, when it comes to stress nothing beats holiday shopping. Give me fifty essays and two sets of tests to grade over a trip to the mall any day!

Then, there's the question of in-laws visiting, which means that the comfortable semi-squalor in which you have become accustomed to living - perhaps even become quite fond of, actually; I mean, isn't the dust kind of artistic, in a Neo-Bohemian kind of way? - must be banished in its entirety, leaving sparkly kitchen countertops and a big dent in your wallet caused by the new curtains you put up to "finish the room." God forbid you give them anything to point at as being viable proof of your ineptitude as a Wife and Mother.

Everyone else seems to be going out of town for the holidays, which means that YOU are the designated dog-sitter, mail-picker-upper, and turn-on-the-lights-at-nighter for the week.

In short - doesn't anyone else find that the holidays create more work and stress than work itself ever does?

We live in a small town in southside Virginia. By "small town" I mean that the only place in town where the prices aren't marked up for visiting antiques fanatics and wealthy, old-money tobacco farm families is Wal Mart; which naturally means that if you don't want to give the same presents to your friends that they are giving to you, you have to travel at least forty-five minutes from home, assuming that you (like me) have waited until the last minute to complete your holiday shopping and don't trust Internet websites to get things to you in three days or less.

Have you driven on Virginia highways lately? I had to stop at a hair salon on my way to the mall to get a touch-up for the new grays that instantly sprang to my head after the drive to Danville, the veritable Metropolis nearest my sweet home.

It seems as though everyone else in southside Virginia drives an eighteen-wheeler, a truck or an SUV(they're not just for suburban soccer moms anymore!) Really, I feel humbled (not to mention scared to death) to be sharing the road with them
in my little Toyota Corolla.

Rather like me, my car shakes and shivers with the effort whenever it is asked to go beyond a
certain speed, generally anything over 70 MPH(my personal "certain speed" is significantly lower, but I won't go into that now.) You would think that since the posted speed limit on the highways of my state is 65 MPH at its highest this would pose no problems; but you would be dead wrong, my friend. I don't know why, but even in the "slow" right-hand lane, the posted speed limit doesn't match up with the actual speed of the cars on the road.
You can be going exactly 60 MPH, the needle straight and unwavering on the number, and feel as though you are the slow-motion instant replay as every other car on the road shoots past you in "real time," generally accompanied with a loud blast from the horn or a finger in the air as the driver shoots you a "Die, Loser!" glare on his way past you. (I might point out here that you generally run into those cars again, stopped at the stoplight in town, where the drivers thump on their steering wheels in frustration and look as though they might lose it entirely if the light doesn't turn green in about a second.) I wonder about these people. We moved to the country because we wanted a slower
lifestyle. Where are they in such a hurry to get to? I've been to Danville; trust me, there's nothing there that merits this kind of demonic speed.

(A digression: I always wonder why it is that people can drive 80-90 MPH on the highways in $50-60,000.00 vehicles with impunity, but if I drive 35 MPH in town in my $16,000.00 car there's a cop right there ready to drain my already-meagre bank account just in time for the holidays.)

What's disconcerting about all of this (aside from the need for last-minute braking to accomodate the heating oil tanker that cut into your lane directly in front of you without notice to avoid the Ford pickup that slammed on its brakes in the left-hand lane to avoid the deer that casually waltzed onto the highway; we do, after all, live in the country and drive on country highways!) is that, since it is Christmastime, you are more than likely to meet up with a large number of these people again in the mall. And if you think they drive like entitled, self-important asses, you should see them shop.

Maybe you've noticed them. They're the ones who will walk headlong right into you rather than swerve from their own
paths to avoid unnecessary bumping, then look you right in the eye waiting for an apology for your rudeness in refusing to acknowledge their right to be wherever they are unencumbered. (We had a Persian cat once who had perfected that "I can't believe you are in my way" stare, so I always see fur and whiskers on these people.) They are the ones who knock things out of your arms on their way to the sales aisle, then refuse to stop and help you collect your scattered items - after all, you are the idiot who bought so much. They are the ones who bump your shopping cart with their shopping cart and never excuse themselves -or, alternately, who refuse to move their cart when you happen to meet them, forcing you to back away and accomodate them. (They drive shopping carts like they do their cars.)

They are the ones who let their children run screaming past you, knocking you over as you bend to see what's on the bottom shelf, and then do not deign to apologize for the behavior of their offspring(and you are heartily thankful that, as you are seeing them forty-five miles away from your hometown, their children and your own are probably not going to be in the same class at school.) They are the ones in the checkout line who shift their weight from one foot to another and heave out great sighs of impatience at the incompetence of the cashier. Or, alternately, they believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion of the cashier's ineptitude.

They are the ones talking away blithely on their cellphones as they unload their items onto the checkout counter- so that, after waiting for half an hour in an inevitably long, last-minute shopping line, you are now forced to wait another fifteen minutes as they scream "Omigod!" and "Nuh-UH, get out!" into their Motorolas. They are the ones who try to pay with a gift cardthat doesn't scan, and then leave in a huff, all of their items still on the counter.

Take a half a Xanax, it gets better.

They are the ones who block the entire parking lot in their mad scramble to get the best possible parking space. They are the ones who left the huge dent in your fender, the scratch in your door, the light knocked out of the front bumper of your car, because they are in such a hurry(and talking away on their cellphones) in their big trucks and SUVs that they never heard the crunching noise your little car made as they hit it. Inevitably, even if they do notice that your car now sports a side-dent, they do not leave a note on your windshield; you, my friend, will have to explain this to your insurance company all by yourself. But they are also the ones who watch you like a hawk as you open your own door if you happen to be parked next to them; God love you if they even imagine you have touched their precious car with some portion of your own. (I have taken to parking at the very, very far end of the parking lot expressly for this reason; then again, this also means that my car can be an easy target for those of them that feel that lanes in parking lots are merely a suggestion as to where to drive.)

They are the ones who spend about twenty minutes in the dressing room(again, talking on their cellphones) while there's a line of ten people waiting to try on clothes. They are the ones who grab the only sales rep on the floor and send her into the back room to look for ten items that are inevitably not in stock, then send the poor creature fleeing back to the back room in tears after they deliver a diatribe about how much the store (and, by association, the sales rep) sucks not to have everything they want readily available. They are the ones who complain loudly and bitterly about how much everything
costs, then plunk down five hundred dollars' worth of merchandise at the checkout lane and ask to fill out a form for a store credit card(and you should always, always hope that they are approved, because if they are not, then you will be in that line much longer as they insist upon speaking to everyone in Creation about why they were declined.)

I don't know about you, but grading papers safely in my bed with a cup of tea, my daughter watching Little Einstein's next to me, and a warm, snuggly, purring cat just seems so much more appealing to me than going through Mall Hell, even if it means I have to go to work to return those papers the next day.

After you have completed the Mall run, wrapped the gifts, and placed them under the tree, you might feel entitled to a nice, relaxing afternoon off. Or, if you're like me, you get a phonecall from your in-laws, who have decided that they want to come to Christmas at your house after all(they weren't sure they would make it until a few days before the 24th.)

I recently had a phone conversation with a girlfriend of mine about the in-laws thing. She was upset because she felt so uncomfortable and ill-at-ease when she was around them; she wasn't sure they liked or approved of her, after ten years of marriage and three kids. She was sure that they were always judging and evaluating her, and that she came up short about 90% of the time. The prospect of spending the holidays with them was enough to send her running to the phone to call me. I have to admit that I wasn't much help to her, although I commiserated heartily. I'm beginning to think that all of us have this in-laws complex; we like them, and we think they like us, but we can never really be sure, and so we end up feeling decidedly un-festive in their presence.

My in-laws, for example, are wonderful, wonderful people. I like them exceedingly. But they always seem to manage to make me feel as though I am not living up to my end of the bargain. It's little comments, like, "Oh, don't worry about cleaning the house, we know you're really busy" and, "Oh, we'll just stay at a hotel" that send me running for the vacuum and every cleaning product known to Mankind. The implication, at least in my head, is clear: I am an incompetent housekeeper, and not only are they positive that I am raising their darling grandchild and forcing their darling son to live in unhygenic conditions, but they will not deign to spend the night for fear of sleeping in germ-infested quarters. I know that they are simply trying "not to impose" - but you know, they're coming to our house for Christmas already, so the "imposition" in question is already there; at the very least they could now agree to sleep in our guestroom and validate my housekeeping! I am, obviously, going to have gone to vast efforts to create a sparkling-clean environment whether they sleep in our house or not, and I wonder why they feel that, after having gone to so much trouble, I would prefer that they not sleep over. (Maybe the just have a thing for hotels?)

Then, of course, there's the inevitable argument over holiday traditions. My husband and I are, to put it as my students do, "in a fight" over when to open gifts. In his family, they always opened everything on Christmas day. In my family, we opened family and friend gifts on Christmas Eve and then Santa came on Christmas morning, which to my way of thinking makes perfect sense, as it separates out the family gifts from the Santa gifts and prolongs the festivities for the kids; they still get the anticipation of Santa to look forward to, but they also appreciate what was given by good old Mom and Dad. Since his parents were coming,and expressed an interest in coming on Christmas Day rather than Christmas Eve, DH thought we should just open everything on Christmas Day. I put my foot down: they said they didn't want to impose, so I took them at their word: we were opening family gifts on Christmas Eve, and that was final. The in-laws reluctantly agreed to come on Christmas Eve, but I'm pretty sure everyone else feels I am being unreasonable. My thinking on this at this point is: I'm the Mother, and since on a regular basis in terms of everything else I have to decide what and when amd how, so in this instance as well my way goes.

Having cleaned the house top-to-bottom, it will inevitably be completely trashed by the time I get Christmas Dinner on the table(I am not famous for my ability to clean-as-I-go when I cook; I'm not famous for my cooking, either, for that matter.) My in-laws will insist upon helping to clean. They will do the dishes by hand, despite the fact that we have a dishwasher, and will be deaf to my protests that they are guests in my home and don't have to clean. I will feel like a total slob and an incompetent housekeeper as they dry and put away the last dish, having taken the time to straighten the cabinets while they were putting the dishes away. They will then be very disappointed because their granddaughter will in the meantime have gone down for her nap, and "they need to get on the road." Despite the fact that nothing they do or say is (as far as I know!) intended as a slight or a put-down, I will inevitably feel the compulsion to ring my friend's therapist to schedule a session to deal with my feelings of inadequacy following their visit.

Work may be stressful - but I usually don't want a Valium at the end of the workday, either!

Then, after surviving the Mall and the In-laws, there's the Being-a-good-neighbor schtick. In my case, it means that, having sworn I am not going anywhere for the holidays because I want to stay home in my house and rest and relax, I am fair game to my neighborhood friends and acquaintances as a housesitter. So, instead of sleeping in on the 26th, I will be schlekking about, collecting mail, turning on lights at night to keep prowlers at bay, and walking dogs. I like doing this - I really do. But let's be honest, here - how many times during the year do
your friends and neighbors ask you to house and dogsit for them? It's always during the Christmas Vacation.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to January 2nd, when all I will have to deal with is sixty teenagers and six lesson plans a day. After writing this, I am still sitting here at a loss: why do we look forward to Christmas Vacation every year?

Sunday, Bloody Sunday (AKA Tech Rehearsal...)

I don't know why, but tech rehearsal is always scheduled for Sundays. Which means grumpy, grouchy, downright MEAN actors in their day jobs the following Monday - especially if tech rehearsal ends at an indecent hour.

Take our tech rehearsal for Children of Eden, which was yesterday - 2:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. By the time I got home following changing and making sure everything was in it's spot, it was - yup, you guessed it - MIDNIGHT. Ten hours of rehearsal. Ten loooooooooong hours.

Tech rehearsal, for those of you unfamiliar with theatre jargon, is when the sound, lights, special effects, wardrobe, props, set construction, stage manager, and everyone else above and beyond the actors involved-people in the show get together with the director(s) and scratch their heads and God knows what else trying to figure out how all the pieces-parts fit together to make a coherent visual and audial vision.

Actors should show up promptly at 2:00, get into their costumes, alert the Wardrobe Mistress of any alterations or repairs that may be necessary, and then be prepared to: sit.

...and sit.

...and sit.

But should NOT, under any circumstances, LEAVE the theatre for any reason whatsoever, because when the director wants the actors on stage, he wants them on stage NOW: if you hold everyone else up because you aren't present and accounted for, then you are an ignoble SLOB and you are WASTING EVERYONE'S TIME.

Additionally, actors should come PREPARED, with LINES MEMORIZED, knowing ALL STAGE DIRECTIONS and BLOCKING and WARMED UP to PERFORM during the rehearsal.

Unfortunately, it seems that a few of my fellow actors in this particular production didn't get their job description sheet, or else they just didn't care that they were being IGNOBLE SLOBS and WASTING EVERYONE'S TIME.

It's not that I begrudge anyone's missing a few cues or being in the wrong place once in a while (because, of course, this would be hypocritical.) But I think that after THREE MONTHS of preparation, we should all probably be OFF THE BOOK at least, with some sense as to what we are supposed to be doing while we are on stage under a spotlight. This could just be me; I tend to be a little anal retentive about things about which I am passionate; like theatre, for example.

It could also be that I would prefer we NOT look like blithering idiots on stage. (Again, I know, I'm expecting a lot.) I mean, we've only had rehearsal three times a week, every week, since the beginning of September. And the woman playing Yonah - well, she was only able to make it to five or six of those rehearsals, seeing as she has a job and a new fiance outside of the production, so of course her responsibilities are overwhelming. And the man playing Japheth - well, he's a single guy with no fiancee, but he also has a full-time job alongside a very busy social calendar, so I guess that he's overwhelmed, too. I, on the other hand, with my full time job, three dogs, husband and two year old daughter, conference presentation, article editing for publication, and graduate class, have somehow managed to squeeze in the memorization of my parts (yes, more than one) as well as Yonah's part, which I am understudying, "just in case". God has a full time job as a school media specialist and cares for his mother and sister; he's memorized his part. Adam is an optometrist, and Eve(his real-life wife, isn't that CUTE?!) is a teacher, and they have two kids - but they memorized THEIR parts. In fact, pretty much everybody in the production with real responsibilities outside of the show has their part down more or less pat, yet Single Yonah and Single Japheth - they can't seem to memorize their lines or songs. Things that make you go "hmmmmn."

Clearly, no one can expect either Yonah or Japheth to have memorized their part at this juncture. They know MOST of their lines, after all. I mean, we go on- when? This coming Friday? Oh, yes, it is WAAaaaaay too early for them to have their shit together. And staging? Oh, staging their scenes is the director's job. They could not possibly come up with something nice and romantic on their own. SOMEBODY has to DIRECT their relationship, they are incapable, as actors, of memorizing their songs or their lines, how in HELL could someone expect them to create a scene?!

(If you're sensing rage here, DO keep in mind that we were there until almost midnight last night, partly because every scene with Dear Yonah and Darling Japheth had to be redone or was accompanied with several minutes' worth of director's notes as to how to fix it. Plus, Japheth is doubling as Cain - so we had to sit through THOSE scenes and notes, too. So, I'm not in the best of moods.) Have you ever noticed how some people are just oblivious to the fact that their irresponsibility affects everyone around them and causes major problems? As in, we have thirty kids in this cast and all of them were up until midnight on a school night?! Poor babies. When the director called for the final scene, parents had to wake them up to get through it. I'm sure we didn't sound so hot at that point, with thirty sleepy and grouchy voices belting out the finale "so we can go home." But, hey, Yonah and Japheth's social lives come before the play and these kids' education. Interesting that they are both teachers themselves...Again, things that make you go, "hmmmmmmn."

On the plus side, the Director seems to have a show, overall. I am always amazed at how this man can take chaos and shape it into organized chaos with everyone on the same beat and rhythm! Magic. Sorcery. (No, wait - I mean, ten hour rehearsal, followed by subsequent five hour rehearsal every night this week...but I digress.)

But for all the complaining I have done in this entry, we have a beautiful show. Our stage crew is The Best, the kids have been Incredible, God's voice is -well, frankly, it's HEAVENLY, and Adam and Eve are wonderful. Mama rocks the house in "Ain't It Good" - and, hey, we storytellers do a little rockin' and rollin' ourselves on "Generations"! I think the audience will, for the most part, be pleased. Once again, HCLT pulls it off at the last minute, under the wire, two minutes in the quarter, the bases loaded - I think we may well have a Grand Slam.

Assuming we get some sleep and that certain folks come PREPARED, with ALL LINES MEMORIZED, knowing ALL STAGE DIRECTIONS and WARMED UP TO PERFORM.

OK, not really holding my breath - but hoping for a Home Run, anyhow.

Finding the Rhythm

Well, we're on the second-to-last week of rehearsals - Tech Sunday (AKA Black Sunday, because you have to black out the entire day on your calendar, it's so gone once rehearsal begins) looms, and things are getting hot and heavy as we scramble to find the rhythm of this play.

The music is gorgeous, and we're doing a credible job with the vocals, although everyone and his dog has had at least one case of the sniffles; I drink honey tea even as I type this. There are some breakout moments in rehearsal, when everyone just stops and goes, "Oh, yeah, THAT was chills up and down my spine" - but overall, we have yet to find any gel, either in the performances individually or in the
piece itself. The best of our principals are still having trouble nailing down their characters; the worst of our principals aren't even off the book yet(?!?!) and every scene is a grueling test of endurance and willpower as the director, musical director, and choreographer butt heads and/or decide to start over from scratch.

With the role of the snake and that of a storyteller in the ensemble as well as a soloist, plus understudying the Yonah role, I am finding this an increasingly schizophrenic experience. Everything is chaos, and it's been very difficult to find quiet moments to reflect and try to get into the heads of my characters. Mainly, I'm working it out in the car, commuting to and from work and to and from my evening class. At home, chaos reigns supreme - if it weren't for my husband, there wouldn't be a clean dish or piece of underwear in our house, period. My two year old is growing increasingly jealous of Mommy's time as rehearsal stretch longer and longer and she sees me less and less. (I think my husband may well be suffering the same feeling, he's just better at handling it than she is!)

It's not enough to know the lines and to sing them on key - anyone knows that. The most important part is to bring yourself to the character, introduce yourselves, and get into his/her head. This makes multiple roles a major challenge, particularly for the amateur actor with a full-time job, family, and other commitments above and beyond theatre. Throw in a head cold, and you've got a nervous breakdown in the making!

I am in awe of the amount of talent we have in our community. The voices are phenomenal, and most of the cast is really bringing their hearts and souls to rehearsal every night. It's frustrating to see so much in the way of ability, talent, and drive, and still be so far from where we wanted to be at this point. (Particularly when I've been out until 11:00 at rehearsal three nights running and the alarm wakes me up at 5:00 each following morning.)

I love this show, and I think we may have a really amazing experience ahead of us when the curtain goes up. I just hope that we can find the rhythm on stage and that I can find the rhythm in my life to make it possible for us all to just be transported into euphoriaville.

Finding the

Halloween execs sniff glue, Anna runs naked in department stores...what's going on?

Here's a question for the ages: What do Halloween costume execs sniff before making their decisions as to what costumes will be available for toddlers in any given year?

I'm only asking because - well, let me tell you the story, and you decide.

So no shit, there we were, (credit again to our Art Teacher for the catchy introductory phrase) my husband and I and our darling, cherubic (most of the time!) blonde haired, blue-eyed daughter Anna, scouring the aisles of the local Wal Mart for a Halloween costume for the Daughter Unit. And I mean scouring the aisles. There wasn't much to work with.

DH: "What size does she wear, again?"

Me: "Ummm...3T."

DH: "Yep, no, these are all for newborns. Wait, here's one! No, it's a Spider Man costume."

Me: (hopefully) "Well, she could be Spider Man."

DH: "It's too big for her. Wait! 3T? Here are the 3Ts. Let's see...they've got fairy princess" (holds up flimsy, diaphanous outfit complete with wings.)

Me: "Umm...Hon? Yeah. Halloween. It's going to be cold outside. I'm going to go with "no" on the short, see-through gown thing."

DH: " Well, here's Pirate Queen in 3T..."

Me: "How are we supposed to explain to Anna what she is for Halloween? She's too young to understand Johnny Depp!" (Of course, she takes off her shirt for Leonardo Da Vinci at Renaissance Fairs, but that's a whole 'nother story...) To DD: "No, Anna! Put DOWN the skeleton outfit, that's for grownups."

DH: " Um - Melle?" (Holds up long, white thing.) "This is the only other one I can find in 3T."

Me: (looking at mounds of white stuff in DH's hands) "What is it, a ghost?"

DH: " No. It's a bride costume."

Me: (incredulous) "It's a WHAT?!"

DH: " A bride costume. See? It even has a little veil, a bouquet..."

Me: " NO. NO! What crazy, glue sniffing, brown-cracksmoking Halloween executive decided that it would be cool to dress a toddler - a TODDLER - up as a BRIDE?! I mean, who would ever even think of that?!"

DH: " Umm... pedophiles?"

Me: (withering glance) " That's not even close to being funny. No! This is Halloween for God's sake, not a Middle Ages meeting between parents trying to marry off their underaged daughters to the highest bidder! Where are the pumpkin outfits, the ghost outfits, the cute, furry little full-length animal costumes? They had those last year, remember, and Anna was a tiger, and it was so cute? Where are the witch costumes, even, for God's sake?"

DH: (helpfully) " Well, there is the Pirate Queen."

Me: " NO! No pirate queen. Honestly! Who comes up with this stuff? Seriously. I mean - fairy princess, pirate queen, or BRIDE?! And that's IT, that's all the choice we have? They have seventeen different kinds of ORANGE JUICE in this store, and they can't come up with more than three kinds of Halloween outfits for little 2-year old girls?"

We did NOT get a costume that evening.

Instead, we decided to head down to North Carolina over the weekend. They have a Burlington Coat Factory - we were pretty sure we could do better than "pirate queen." Unfortunately, there were no costumes at the BCF - but there WERE adorable little confections of Christmas dresses on sale. We decided to get a Christmas dress. I loaded up a dressing room with about seven of them and Anna started trying them on. Not, however, before she got a chance to see how things worked in a dressing room. There were several men there with their daughters - older than Anna, probably around 8,9,10 years old or so - so, naturally, said fathers were not accompanying their daughters into the dressing rooms. Anna picked up on this right away. With a withering glance and the imperiousness only a 2-year old who's got it all figured out can muster, she pointed to the dressing room door and said authoritatively:

"Daddy, you get OUT, right NOW."

Daddy did NOT join us in the dressing room. He browsed in the men's section instead.

Anna tried on pretty, frilly dress after pretty, frilly dress. After each was safely on and fastened up, she pranced up and down the aisle and did a few spins, reveling in long "swooshy" skirts. But I guess she got bored - or really got into the moment. Because around dress number four, as I was undoing the zipper and trying to get the thing off the hanger, I heard a rustling sound behind me. Turning, I saw my darling daughter's pull-up lying on the floor at my feet, and her bare little tushie and spiderlike legs crawling under the dressing room door.


The next thing you know, I hear the thud-thud-thud sound that is Anna's feet when she is running, and an ungodly, high-pitched noise that after a moment revealed itself to be her little voice, continuously exclaiming, rapturously and at its highest pitch:


I opened the dressing room in time to see my darling daughter in her birthday suit, running her little stiff-legged run, waving her arms wildly in the air, screaming her new catchphrase over and over again - and heading onto the next aisle.

I probably should have run right after her and covered her with something. Instead, I did what any mildly insane mother would do in such circumstances. I sat on the dressing room floor and laughed until I almost peed my pants.

Yeah, you know. You remember the first time your child did something like that.

Eventually, things righted themselves. Anna put her diaper back on, we found a dress - we even found an adorable Halloween costume, courtesy of K-Mart, of all places. If you ask my daughter what she's going to be for Halloween, she proudly announces to the entire room, "I'm a widdle ftinker." Which, translated into grownup talk, means a nice, furry, warm, full-body skunk costume complete with pull-over head and wavy little tail.

But I confess - I'm still not sure who's running the show. I just hope it's not those glue-sniffing Halloween execs.

Stephen Swartz is The Devil

Okay, I know - we all love Wicked -- such a lyrical adaptation of the novel, what songs, what energy, what a fabulous main character (but I think maybe Swartz is getting too much credit for that; after all, L. Frank Baum originally conceived of The Green Witch and The Good Witch, and Swartz simply adapted for the stage another author's vision of them in pubescence.) But I'm not talking about Wicked, which is relatively simple music-wise. No, I'm talking about that other uber-famous Swartz creation, Children of Eden - that snappy, pop-y retelling of Genesis. Which sounds divine on CD, really - I've been listening to it now for several weeks on my various
treks to and from graduate school at night, getting a feel for it. And let me tell you, you can really get a feel for it, even if you don't happen to be a seriously religious person. (I have a lot of faith - one must, when one is as accident-prone and given to living a bizarre existence as I am, somebody is clearly watching out for me.) But the whole church thing- I've tried, honestly I have, but I just can't seem to do it. Still, this CD is wonderful listening. I cry every time Adam hits the high notes in "A World Without You" (which I imagine is highly entertaining for folks sharing the road with me) and
I can't help but jam it out to "Wasteland" which sounds like a boiled-down version of every eighties song I can name off of the top of my head.

But getting around to singing it - well, suddenly you realize that this man has a very Dark and Twisted soul. And he hates community theatre singers. We're talking impossible harmonies. A lot of them.

I'm playing a Storyteller and the Snake (I know, I know, typecast as usual.) The issue I am facing is one of memory capacity. For the Snake, I'm singing second alto. The problem isn't the notes - I'm a mezzo-soprano, so the notes come easily. The problem is that I don't sight-read and - ta-da! the second alto line converges with the third top line in this song, rendering the notes impossible to discern when one is actually hearing and singing the thing. Which means that our five-part harmony is So. Not. Coming.Out.As.Anything.Resembling.Harmony. It actually kind of resembles the sound a garbage compactor makes, or maybe a car crash. And no matter how many times our musical director plays the parts as solos and we sound
oh-so brilliant singing them, whenever we get together it hurts. We have seven weeks to get this hashed out. Oomph.

Then, there's the little matter of the Storyteller part, in which I'm singing everything from alto to soprano dependent upon the song in question. I loooove the fact that I get to belt out, a la gospel, the opening lines of "Wasteland" - belting is my speciali-tay, as those of you who know me can attest; I have never had a problem getting loud and strong! I can rock a D belt. I am terribly, terribly concerned about - oh, the other TWELVE songs I have to sing as part of the storyteller group, mainly because I am not a true soprano, I am a mezzo soprano, and let me tell you, the high G is just a tad bit out of my reach four times out of five. But I'm singing the soprano line because- well, hell, we're community theatre, and I can hit everything up to an F fairly comfortably, when I'm not stuffed up with allergy congestion. (I've never had allergies until my 30s, go figure. The joys of living in
Virginia. Someone once told me that I would develop allergies at some point because everyone here does. I scoffed. I think I would have to sit down and eat Humble Pie with that person now, if I knew who and where s/he was...)

At any rate, the other problem, aside from my impersonating a cat having sex at midnight on those high G notes, is that here, too, even in the "simple chorus parts" Swartz has diverged the damned harmonies. Sometimes we have three lines and sometimes four lines. Sometimes I'm a soprano and sometimes I'm an alto. Sometimes I'm supposedly dancing while singing and trying to hit that G (which is just laughable. If I can't hit it standing still and focusing, what makes ANYONE think I can hit it while doing the softshoe?!?!) Not to mention the fact that most of the Storyteller songs switch back and forth from harmony to everyone singing the same line; in other words, Swartz wants us to jump from a middle C to a high F or G in one note. Clearly, the man was only writing for the Broadway-Bound singer, and not a lowly community player!

Of course, the score could be simplified; we could drop some of the harmonies. But no, nonononononono, we're keeping them. Rock on, my friends, rock on. No rest for the weary. We'll sing every individual note until we get them right! (Anyone want to come see this show in about FIVE YEARS when we get it right?) lol

But this sounds like complaining, and I'm not, honestly. I LOVE the music, and I'm thrilled to be in this show. I just kind of wish now that instead of getting that degree in interdisciplinary Medieval/Renaissance studies with a focus on French literature - I had, well, you know. Gone to Juilliard. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.

Tra-la-lAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech! (Whoops, sorry. Gotta go practice.)

Me, Myself, and the Writing Thing

I've been doing some thinking on the writing front.

It seems as though there has never been a time when I didn't write something, anything. My mother still has notebooks from when I was three years old, filled with page upon page of frantic, slanted scribbles across the page, unintelligible yet compelling: clearly, I was trying to communicate something, although I could never say what that might have been. I began writing actual stories, in tipsy upper-case capitals, in the first grade. In the third grade, I wrote a book; a fully illustrated, 100 page story about creatures from another planet called fuzzy wuzzies. ( I wrote a second book in third grade so closely modeled on Bambi that it makes me cringe whenever I think about it.)

I've been writing ever since then - stories, plays, songs, poems, articles, essays, and of course, this blog. It seems as though there were never a time when there weren't characters in my head or a storyline making the rounds of my subconscious. A novel about a grey fur seal in seventh grade. A book about a zebra at pony penning in Chesapeake in eighth grade. A rollicker of a fantasy novel in high school. On and on, pages and pages of gibberish, ideas, snippets, roughdrafts.

To date, I have published several poems and newspaper articles, as well as a few essays and editorials. But what about all of the other stuff? What is the point of all of my writing? I'm not entirely certain there is a point, to be frank. I think some of us on this planet, we just need to write. It's an addiction, akin to crack-cocaine or heroin, for my money. Papers to grade? Well, there's this story I've been working on in my head...Driving a car? Oh, wait, I need paper and a pen, that was a good bit of dialogue I just composed...Sleep? Overrated in the face of a possible chapter opener. And on and on, this inexplicable, inexorable need to set pen to paper and write, write, write. Writing wreaks havoc on my schedule, on my personal life, at my job, in public - I admit it, I'm a junkie.

Sometimes, it seems as though I am still three years old, scribbling meaningless lines across paper in a blind effort to communicate. At 32, I'm still not sure what, exactly, I'm trying to say. But I need to say it, nonetheless, almost daily, on any writing surface and with any implement I can obtain. (Although I'm particularly partial to yellow legal pads and those lovely Focus gel pens.) I rejoice when something goes well, when a poem sounds like a poem, or a turn of phrase sounds fresh and original; I become surly and downright rude when I am interrupted in the midst of a writing jag (ask my husband for verification on this, the poor man never saw it coming when he married me "for better or worse", and I freely admit to being glad we wrote our own vows, so that I am not constantly breaking the one about "foresaking all others". Writing is the third party in our relationship. Then again, the computer is the fourth party, on his side, so I figure he's equally glad not to have said those particular words...!)

My number-one complaint on any given occasion is that I don't have enough time to write. Of course, this is partially my own fault - I also love theatre, and plays are a big commitment, especially the musicals I love to act in. But then again, I find myself writing more and better during the run of a play than at other times. I think it's to do with the artistic expression and tapping into my inner self; all of the energy and inspiration that comes out of the creation process on stage seems to pour itself back into my head and, subsequently, onto paper. But although the early ideas and drafts are often good at this point, I never seem to have the time to go back and rewrite, revise, and polish. Which is probably why I have yet to publish a book-length work in any form. Well, that and the fact that I don't have an agent; I've tried in the past, but it
seems as though you have to know somebody or have a trust fund in order to find representation in
the literary world. It's no longer the place for struggling unknowns laden with innate ability,
talent, and drive. Or addicts like me, who are bound to come up with something worthwhile if we just keep scribbling away long enough.

Then again, I always have trouble identifying myself as a writer. It's so confining, the act of labeling oneself; once you choose a title, society is loathe to let you exchange it; in this instance, it feels much like the retail industry: no exchanges or refunds. I am so many things, all of which feed into my work as a writer - wife, mother, teacher, actor, singer, dog owner, cat owner, artist, reader, dancer, student - that to refuse any of these titles would severely hamper my ability to write anything of any determinable interest. If it weren't for the life I live, the business of who I am, there would be nothing to say. So, while I would like to be a writer in polite company, to introduce myself as such with a cute little napkin under my cocktail as I mingle with pseudo-intellectuals who gaze admiringly upon me as I make the proclomation, I hesitate a second too late and keep silent.

Writing is personal; in my case, I imagine it is destined to stay that way. I've graduated from slanted scribbling across paper to bizarre, poetic formations of actual words, reams of pages filled top-to-bottom with carefully edited, word-processed words, bits and scraps of paper filled with words, real words on pretty much every flat surface I can get my hands on. But I'm still not certain what all of those words mean, and I don't know that I will ever know. Perhaps they mean nothing until someone else has read them and made them meaningful through his or her own interpretation. All I know at present is that I have written, continue to write, will write. My creation may mean nothing at all, or it may be profound, or it may be of limited brilliance, but I can no sooner stop creating than I can stop drinking coffee or eating chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. I'm kind of glad about that, actually, glad that there aren't any medications or therapies or twelve-step programs for the writer to overcome his or her addiction. Life without a pen in hand would seem sort of bland, all in all.

Top Ten Reasons to get Pregnant in 2006...

Okay, so I've been doing some musing on the topic, and my husband and I have discussed it, and we think this is a very good idea. Daughter Number One is 2 now, and we figure that if we wait much longer, potty training will be done and-well, it's best to have the next baby out and about by that point, as I'm pretty sure there are statistics out there (but please don't ask me what statistics!) proving that couples who have gone through potty-training and do not have a second baby already are less likely to go on with that particular project!

Over the past few weeks, reasons for having another baby have been flooding my head. Below are the Top Ten Reasons why I feel that getting pregnant is the best option for me at present:

1. No more periods. Who has the time or energy to deal with that?

2. 6-weeks paid maternity leave sounds like a fantastic vacation.

3. It will continue the tradition of carrying Baby in utero on stage, perfect training for his or her future as a theatre star.

4. We're getting ready to paint the house, and it would be nice to know what color the third bedroom should be.

5. Extra fat helps keep you warm in winter, and I hate being cold.

6. My old maternity clothes are all winter-based, so it would cut down on shopping.

7. Anna has outgrown all of her cute baby clothes and they're just sitting in her closet gathering dust.

8. Other women are much nicer to me when I'm thirty pounds heavier; I could use the friends.

9. It would give me a valid excuse for all of the things I keep forgetting to do, like paying bills and laundry.

10. I wouldn't have to read my Vicki Iovine pregnancy and first year books on motherhood(which are laugh-out-loud funny!) undercover anymore.

Yup, look out world: if I have my way, there'll be one more crazy, hormone-driven pregnant woman out there by the end of the year!

(And if it happens before Thanksgiving, so much the better; watch out, turkey!)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Courage to Do...

I'm coming to a realization as I get older: I'm braver than most of the people I know.

I'm a "doer" - one of those people who gets up and does things. A lot of things.

I don't think this is because I am inherently more gifted or talented than others, or because I'm more brilliant than others, or for any other reason I can think of; it's just a question of sitting down and not doing something versus doing something - and I've never really been the "sit back and take it easy" type.

Take this fall, for example - I work full-time teaching six classes a day at a private high school. I'm also the mommy of an adorable two year old, a wife, and the loving owner of three dogs and a cat. Most of the people I know stop there - that's a full load. Me? I'm also teaching SAT prep twice a week after school, taking a graduate class at a college an hour away once a week at night, finalizing seven pieces for publication in an academic anthology on the 16th century, preparing a conference presentation on teaching literature for the VATE (Virginia Association for Teachers of English) conference in October, doing the makeup for the fall production at our theatre company, and acting in Children
of Eden, our winter musical, this November, which means rehearsals from now through then. On
top of all of that, I am also actively courting the proposal to get preggers again between now and Christmas.

Am I crazy? (Don't answer that. I know a lot of people who think I am absolutely insane. You're probably one of them. That's OK, I'm used to it by now.) I guess I just feel that we get one shot at this thing called life, and I'd like to have had one when all's said and done. I'd rather be a little tired from all that I've been doing and involved in than a little sluggish from having not done anything. I want to have the courage to love other people and to love my life enough that I'm willing to just jump in and do it. When it is all over, I don't want to regret not having done something. I don't want to wonder if I have wasted my life, if there were more I could have done. I don't want to be the pretty towel that looked decorative on the stove handle for years until I was replaced by a newer model - I want to be used up; a limp, smelly, bedraggled artifact that resembles what might at one time have been a pretty towel, but that has served its purpose.

It's kind of like my daughter's stuffed dog. Puppy was given to Anna when she was six months old, and they have been inseparable ever since. Puppy was once a plush, soft, caramel-colored thing with bright eyes and an inviting face. Now, two years later, Puppy is a thing of indeterminate color and definite smell. He's crusty where she's sucked on his tail and nose, his eyes are half worn off, and he's gotten quite limp from her having rolled all over him every night in her sleep (a future doer, my child cannot sit still even at rest.) But Puppy has given my child more joy, comfort, and happiness than all of the other toys we have bought her put together, and I imagine that Puppy will be with her long after the garage sales and Ebay listings in the future. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Puppy is well on his way to being made "real."

That's me. That's my life. I may be exhausted, a bit faded and wrinkly 'round the edges, and not as bright and shining as I used to be - but I'm getting more and more real each day. I think it takes a certain courage to be willing to go for it. In the end, Puppy's fate is sealed - he is going to literally disappear, one little piece at a time. My child is going to love him to pieces. But oh - what a way to go. We should all be so lucky, and so brave.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

America then and now...

I'm currently teaching Jewish-American literature this term to a group of highly sensitive teenagers, and the experience so far has been a profound one. These kids are really thinking about some of the larger issues involved in studying what is commonly referred to as a "minority group" through the literature created by people who are by heritage identified with it. We are reading E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime at present, and the discussion the other day took on a wonderful and thought-provoking twist.

Three of the students in the class are of Jewish heritage; as to the rest, they are descended from a hodge-podge of Christian sects - Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Methodist. We have discussed the concept of the WASP in early 20th century America, of the inherent prejudices of the time associated with Catholicism, Irish in particular, and with Judaism, and compared them with today's conservative Christian views of the Muslim and Hindu communities.

My students discussed the modern tendency to identify primarily with their current lifestyle and the people with whom they have grown up, rather than with their religion. For the most part, the Christian students maintained that the phrases, "I'm a Baptist," or "I'm Catholic" come rolling out easily, by practice, but that they don't actually identify with this particular aspect of their identity; most of them rarely go to church and don't really practice religious traditions at home. My Jewish students claimed that they were more likely to follow Jewish law on a regular basis within the home and more likely to attend synagogue. They also identify strongly with the struggle for the preservation of a Jewish state; although only one of them has spent any extended time in Israel, all three of them are considering joining the Israeli army for a year or more when they graduate either high school or college. I asked why this might be: "What does this say about our various cultural heritages, about our ancestors' beliefs about community and what constitutes society? How does this relate to what we have been reading in Doctorow's book?"

The conversation that followed was a whirlwind of ideas and of critical thinking, as the students tried to apply their own experiences and thought about religion and community to the characters in the novel - the Jewish Eric Weiss, whose talent is only bankable so long as he hides his religious heritage from the public under the pseudonym Harry Houdini; Henry Ford, whose position as a WASP allows him never to stop for a moment to consider that there might be limitations to what he may accomplish on American soil, Father and Mother et al. and their comfortable middle-class existence, in which Younger Brother feels free to make comments on the immigrants of lowly aspect whom they pass on the streets; Emma Goldman, who uses her Jewish heritage and feminist doctrines as strengths, reaching out to other outcasts rather than trying to assimilate to a country that does not welcome them with the open arms promised, Freud and his disdain for the illusions presented to him when he visits, who comments to the effect that 'America is simply Europe in translation, with all of the best parts left out.' And, of course, dear Tateh, who pulls and pushes and makes it to the top in spite of his
heritage due to simple talent and a fabulous, innovative, distinctly American idea.

"What has changed?" I asked my students. They believe that Jews for the most part have been
assimilated into American culture, as of course also have the Catholics, but that the Jewish heritage, because of its origins in prejudice and in community, remains stronger than that of most Christian sects. they think that the Muslim and Hindu religions are "the new Judaism and Catholicism" in America, the new outcast communities. They don't think that the country has improved for immigrants, but that the situation has changed: in the 1900s, immigrants worked at the particularly dangerous and low-paying jobs in mills and factories that already-coined Americans didn't want, and now in the 21st century they are the migrant farm workers and the meat-packing warehouse workers, still working at the jobs already-coined americans don't want for the lowest possible wages and without much hope for an improvement in circumstance - no health insurance, no tax breaks, no public assistance.

They think that the upper classes still distance themselves and distract themselves from what is going on in the lower-class communities; they talk about aid and assistance and government sepnding and such, but they don't really do much to set things in motion. In Ragtime, the upper classes distracted themselves with spectacle, tennis, trips to the seaside, and scandals such as Evelyn Nesbit's "Crime of the Century." In our time, the upper classes distract themselves with concerts, the theatre, the ballet, the opera, with tennis and skiing and ballroom dancing and pilates/yoga classes, with vacations to island resorts and Europe, and with scandals like Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachay's divorce, or Britney Spears' quickie marriage. My students think the upper classes are more remote than ever from the lower,
despite protestations of aliberal mindset and fair practices, and that we have created more
distractions than ever before in our efforts to "color the world pretty."

My students have come to the conclusion that times have not necessarily changed in the past hundred years, although the circumstances have been altered. As Henry Ford's automobile line, Tateh's moving picture books, and the railroad industry were the "promise of the future" in 1900, so now we have electric cars, high-speed internet, and the airline industry as our current "future day". As the upper middle classes were comfortable ensconced in New Rochelle rather than downtown Harlem, so now the upper middle classes seem to be performing a mass-exodus to places like Colorado, Northern California, Western Maryland - still seeking escape from the crowds, the dirt, the crime, the truth of the cities they helped to found and continue to patronize and fund.

Finally, my students have come to the conclusion that the past is important and needs to be reexamined for a more truthful interpretation. They don't want to see extremes; none of this "America is going to hell" or "America is and has always been the greatest country in the world." They want to see a more moderate study, in which they can look at and analyze more elements and aspects, compare more between then and now, and see the natural progression of what has come to pass on these shores. They think things are bad, but they do not believe they are all bad, nor do they think they are worse than they have ever been. They would like to see politicians calm down and step off their platforms and stumps for a minute to speak about the truth, as opposed to about what is going to incite American sentiment (which my students can't define and don't believe is a real thing) at the polls. They think the media needs to calm down as well, and report the news without pundits and commentary, which should be left to the tabloid and editorial writers, as was the case in the early 1900s; they would like to see a greater distinction between news writing and commentary, and they would like to see that distinction more carefully demonstrated to the public at large, so that the average American doesn't get wrapped up in editorial commentary and believe it to be the news simply because it is on CNN. Finally, they would like to see this democratic society continue to take steps to become more democratic. They believe that if the Jews and Catholics of the turn of the century a hundred years ago are now mainstreamed, then so too can today's Muslim and Hindu cultures be assimilated in time. They don't think there is an easy answer, but then again, they don't think what the earlier minority citizens of this nation went through was easy, either.

I am proud of my students' work in this class to date, and I think that their observations have been keen. What does it mean to be an American in the 21st century? Have times really changed, or did we begin on an unalterable path upon which we continue to move inexorably towards what can only be an ugly end, a la Roman Empire? Define society. Define community. Define heritage. Define American. We ask a lot of our students...but how many of us out of school and working and living in America today can complete the above-mentioned exercise?

Friday, August 18, 2006

What is it all about?

 A wonderful Art teacher at our school has a funny way of beginning his stories, so a shout out to him as I begin this tale:

So no shit, there I was, up for my annual review.

(It's hard to believe I have been teaching at this school for almost five years now, but there it is. Five years! This is longer than I've ever stayed anywhere, being the daughter of a military family; we tend to be migratory, and get antsy after about two or three years in the same place, kind of like Canadian Geese. ) But I love my job, and I know I'll never get such a wonderful opportunity again, and somehow I've just sort of...well, squatted. The school is a private boarding school on a gorgeous tract of land, with enormous gray-stone buildings and a lake from which fog rises on cold, early mornings, and the settings alone feed my soul. Then, there's the work - as it is a new school, and I came on at the beginning, and it's a private school, so we don't have to contend with the ridiculous state standards, I have had the distinct honor, privilege and joy of building my curriculum from scratch. This is an opportunity teachers never get in the modern world, and I am not one to take my fortunes lightly. As the new buildings on campus go up one by one, so do my new syllabi come out of the laser printer. What I love about this is the challenge of meeting the needs of the students while balancing their needs with my passions. Allow me to share with you how I go about building my classes for this college-preparatory institution.

I begin with an idea - "Wouldn't it be cool to teach a class on Russian Literature?" Then, I make a short list of the works I would like to include in this class. Then, the real work begins. I download and print out every available college syllabus I can find online pertaining to the subject. I go through these with a highlighter and mark the works that show up repeatedly on the college syllabi. Then I compile a list of these and compare it to my own, which leads to final cuts and a book list for the class in question.

Next, I build my syllabus - a midterm and final exam must be scheduled, weekly reading quizzes and response papers, two in-class timed essays (practice for the SAT), three formal essays, and discussion circles each week. I organize and order the works we are reading
according to some plan of my devising - sometimes it's chronological, sometimes thematic,
sometimes it's according to length - ease them into longer works by starting with shorter ones,
or alternately, get the big works out of the way and make it easier for them later in the term.
Finally, I proofread the syllabus, finalize it, and print it out. Syllabus in hand, I then visit local
bookstores and libraries to start researching background materials for lectures and papers. The
entire process for any given course I teach can take about 100 hours. I teach 30 separate classes, all of which were created in this fashion. We are talking a lot of elbow grease here, and we haven't even begun the actual teaching and grading and evaluating. But I love doing it, because I truly feel that my kids are getting a college prep class, that they are seeing what they will see again at the college level - and this is something I never really believed when I was teaching public school.

The classes I teach are grouped into categories for easy transcripts and scheduling. They are as follows:

American Lit: Early American Writing, 1865-1900, 1900-1945, 1945-1975, and Contemporary.

British Lit: Middle Ages-17th c., The Victorians and Moderns, the Romantics, C.S. Lews & J. R.R. Tolkein, and Arthuriana.

World Lit.: Nonwestern survey, Asian Lit., Epic Lit., Indian Lit., and French Lit.

Writing/Performance: Classical-17th century drama, 19th & 20th c. drama, Shakespeare, Creative Writing, and Special Topics

Minorit Lit.: Jewish-American, African-American, lit. of Genocide, Women Writers, and Hispanic-American

Art History: Greek and Roman, Medieval/Renaissance, 17th-19th c., Nonwestern, and Modern/20th c.

This is a LOT of research and syllabus writing over the past four years!

(I also teach the SAT verbal prep classes and write a mean rec for college, BTW.)

Back to the original story. So no shit, there I was, going in for my annual review, in which I get to look at the course evaluations our students complete at the end of each term. I know not to expect a lot - I mean, these are teenagers, and no matter how hard you work to please them and to help them, they're...well, they're teenagers!

But I was in for a rude shock, and I do mean rude. And genuinely bizarre, frankly.

In the plus column, every class included several students commenting as follows: she's passionate, driven, enthusiastic, likes the subject matter, explains well, cares about the students. One kid wrote, "She's brilliant" (I blush) and one enthusiastic little darling wrote, "I LOVE HER!!!" (bless the child.)

In the negative column, again for every class, I received the following: "Arrogant, too hard, yells at the kids, talks off-topic, gives too much work, impatient."

OUCH. But that wasn't too bad, I mean I'm the teacher, they aren't supposed to loooove me as the authority in the classroom. No, what hurt was the few but stinging comments that stood out: "She's an evil wench." (OK, that was kind of funny, actually.) "She hates the students." (What?!?!) " "I hate her." (Hate? Wow.) And worst of all, "She's a liar." (Did the kid research that first?)

Anyway, the point is, the review went very, very well, I got all sorts of kudos and plaudits from my boss, a raise, love and pats on the back, admonitions to stay the course, and so on and so forth. So why do these naysayers' comments stand out in my head so much? I think it is because they seem so unfair. I am actually not arrogant - that would be my classroom demeanor. I have a hard time in large groups. I get insecure and very uncomfortable, and I am actually very shy. So the comedy and song-and-dance routine I employ is actually a cover up for these things, all of which are terrible attributes for the classroom teacher to possess at the high school level. It hurt my feelings that the kids took it (or said they did) as an arrogance. Evil wench - well, hey, I must have failed that kid. But hates the students? Where did they get that idea from? After everything I went through to get this job and everything I went through to do the job to the best of my ability, all of those hours and hours I spent creating curriculum that would get them where they needed to be, grading and evaluating, talking and talking and talking some more, listening, commenting, loving my babies, they think I hate them?! They have no idea how much heart and soul I put into this work and into them. The really rotten students don't know that I cherish their faults and foibles,
even as I'm trying to correct them. They don't know that I take them home with me at night and wonder about them on weekends. They don't get it. They never will. This is, I think, the crux of the hurt I feel. How can they not know? Duh - because they are self-absorbed teenagers and it's all about them!

It IS all about them. That's why I'm here. In former positions, I never really got the feeling we were there for the kids. At this job, I relish the fact that my whole job starts and ends with my darling babies. Maybe if they knew that, they would see where I'm coming from and get what I am doing.

Then again - passionate, driven, enthusiastic - maybe they do get it, after all.

My boss gets it, at any rate. I can now put gas in my car again!

Ovarian whosit-whatsits and Primtetime TV

 Okay, I admit it: I am a hospital drama junkie. ER, Scrubs; more recently, House, and especially Grey's Anatomy - I watch them regularly. (Well, okay, I don't really watch Scrubs all that often, especially if I can find one of the other shows on simultaneously.) Now, I hate hospitals and everything having to do with medecine, surgery, and needles above all, but somehow these shows have a major grasp on my psyche. (I say "somehow", but I know it's really all about the casting. I mean, let's be honest: who doesn't want to watch Noah Wyle, George Clooney, Patrick Dempsey, or Robert Sean Leonard for an hour? Who doesn't identify with poor Meredith Grey and her intern pals? We've all been at the bottom of the food chain in our respective jobs. It's sympathetic, man!) But I digress from my original purpose in writing this.

Having watched these shows on a semiweekly basis for about five years, I consider myself fairly well-versed in hospital drama. I have even made diagnoses on myself based on what I've seen - and, amazingly, I have frequently been right, which means kudos to those well-researched writers! So last week, when I woke up with terrible cramps and nausea, I racked my brain for the correct episode diagnostic. It wasn't the multiple-birth pregnancy one; never having been to Asia and not having any friends who go to exotic places either (more's the pity) I was pretty sure we could rule out the one about SARS; I hadn't been out in the street during any crazy bike rides so it couldn't be massive internal lacerations caused by being hit by a car attempting to avoid a bike ridden by a drunkard. Frankly, I was at a loss, and as the symptoms progressively worsened, I wished I had bought the complete ten-season DVD set of ER.

Eventually, the pain got so bad that I went to the emergency room. (Hey, it was a last-minute, desperate move!) They took all my vitals (Oh, how proud Dr. Bailey would have been of their efficiency! These weren't wet-behind-the-ears interns, no sir!) and then the doctor tried to palpate my abdomen (See? I lifted that right from the writers for ER. I told you they were great!) Unfortunately, I was so tender that I scooted up to the tippy-top of the gurney and squealed "don't touch me!" (neurotic guest star.) They hooked me up with an IV and Dilopid (sp?)...has anyone ever noticed how the anesthesiologist and blood guys are always the most cheerful? They're so thrilled about stabbing their fellow human beings with needles and handling drugs. I'm of the opinion that, like the mother who killed her husband's younger fiancee on Law and Order, they secretly indulge in their own products from time to time, but that's a different kind of drama. Back to hospital angst!

One thing that struck me as being vitally different between my beloved hospital programs and the real deal is the time lapse. Have you ever noticed how quick and snappy, efficient, even, those doctors in television emergency rooms are? They're in and out between commericial breaks. It's an inspiration for Americans everywhere, their efficiency. This is not the case in reality. My doctor, for example, let me sleep for two hours on the drug before he tried to check my tummy again. Then again, maybe he heard a tone in my voice that warned him that he had best let me be until I was good and woozy. I do not handle pain well.

At any rate, eventually the diagnosis came back: "Well, it could be either a kidney infection or a ruptured ovarian cyst," he said, consulting my chart. "But your blood counts are normal and your urine sample came up clean, so I'm leaning towards the cysts."

Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa. What?! Ruptured ovarian whosit-whatsit? I so do not remember that episode on any of the programs I habitually imbibe! "I have what?"

"A ruptured ovarian cyst. See, every month at ovulation, the follicles on your ovaries swell due to hormones. Usually they just go down of their own accord, but occasionally they can get blocked, and then sometimes they burst. That accounts for the swelling and tenderness. The fluid from the cyst is pressing against your organs."

Let me get this straight. "So, what you're telling me is, I have a popped zit on my ovary?!"

He laughed. (The doctors on ER or Grey's Anatomy would never laugh at a patient in such obvious distress! Maybe House would, though.) "Well, more or less."

Ewwwww. Gross! Chalk up another reason why being a woman can suck royally. It's not bad enough my face has to break out once a month, but my ovaries? And how is it that I have lived for thirty plus odd years on this planet and nobody has ever in all of that time mentioned that this happens? Boy, did my parents get gypped out of their taxpaying dollars in my public school system's health classes!

"Is it serious?" I asked timidly.

"Not usually, no. Just monitor it for a few days. We can't really do anything about it except wait for the fluid to go down. In the meantime, we'll get you set up with a prescription for Vicoden and you should think about taking it easy for a few days."

Okay...Vicoden. Now we're talking language I understand. I've never heard of ruptured ovarian cysts, but they hurt like being in labor. (Take my word for that, don't go out and get one to see for yourself.) Vicoden is a good idea right about now. That, and some reruns of ER and Grey's Anatomy.

I'm thinking of writing up my experience with ruptured ovarian cysts as a screenplay for these hospital dramas. None of them have ever featured that storyline before. I think they have a responsibility to keep the viewing public abreast of such horrific possibilities. They have clearly been derelict in their duties. What, they give us the symptoms for SARS and massive head trauma, but not for cysts? Sheesh. I figure if they stagger the shooting schedules approriately, we should see one ovarian cyst episode per network per week for about a month. Hey, I'm looking out for the welfare of the American people, here. It's my civic duty. Besides, I'm looking forward to testing out my newfound medical jargon!

What's so Amazing About Really Deep Thoughts...?

 The title of this entry stems from Tori Amos, for no good reason that I can think of other than that it popped into my head and refused to go away. I love it when that happens. You get a scrap of dialogue, a comment, a lyric, a sound, some minor inkling of a thing, and it stays put. It's uncomplicated and not terribly profound; just a little thing that inserts itself into your subconscious, moves up into your consciousness, and sets up house there, and it is your job to figure out why it came and what to do with it while it stays. It's like a crossword puzzle - a mindless but generally enjoyable exercise in fitting the pieces together and seeing what you come up with.

If you really stop to think about it, this is something of an analogy to life itself. Things come and go - people, events, activities, places - and sometimes they are just entertaining and sometimes they are very important indeed, and it is our job to figure out why they are there and what to do with them. I think this is a task that in today's world has become much more difficult than it used to be, simply owing to the fact that there are such a multitude of things to pick and choose from on a regular basis, and we are so engrossed in trying to make it through the day that we sometimes miss what is most touching, most impactful, most useful to us; even if it is right there before our eyes, we so often fail to recognize the profound in the myriad of Other with which we are bombarded.

I planted roses in front of our house when we moved in two years ago. We were only renting the place, but there was a big, ugly bush of an indeterminate nature on the left-hand side facing the street, and I could see no good reason for its remaining there. So I yanked and pulled and dug and cursed and got good and dirty pulling the thing out by the roots, extracting it, making certain to leave no stray shoot to creep back in unannounced and undesired, and then I planted eight little rosebushes. It was March, so these little rosebushes lay dormant for a good bit, despite all of the water and fertilizer and rosebush food I lavished upon them, and I began to wonder why I had gone to the trouble in the first place if they were just going to sit thee and do nothing. (As a teacher, I have plenty of other things in my life that sit there and do nothing regularly; I was kind of hoping for a bit more on the nature front.) But then, around May or so, there was a new shoot on one of the bushes, and then on another; little reddish, curling leaves, new growth. And then, by June, a few of them were shooting towards the sky, getting tall and thick in the stems, looking more like rosebushes and less like shapeless, nameless plants of no discernible use. And then, mid-June of that first year, I got a single, beautiful, creamy white rose. Just the one, but it was a fragrant one, and it seemed to promise a lot more to come, as I paused on my way out the door to sniff at it. And then, about mid-July, there were more - two red roses on one bush, a pink rose on another. In August, one tiny plant that had failed to grow just withered and died. There was no reason for it that I could see - the other plants all thrived in the same spot - but this little rosebush, for whatever reason, just couldn't make a go of it, and I was sorry both for the bush and for myself. But the beauty and fragrance of the other roses blooming away did much to make this moment easier, and the roses and I continued on.

It is now the third year of roses chez nous, and much has changed. We have a two year old daughter. We lost our venerable old Persian cat to old age and sickness. We bought the house. The rosebushes have grown taller and thicker. But the flowers themselves, as they come and go, remind me that despite all of the change there is constancy, and that each new experience, just as each new rose, is both new and familiar all at once, and my responsibility in all of this is to weed, water, spray the pestkiller and, most important of all, to stop and smell the roses. I may like the smell and look of some of them more than others, but I need to be certain to at least remark upon each of them, because they are there and I caused them to be there; their purpose is to be beautiful and fragrant and this requires me to be present to witness that they have fulfilled this purpose. Sometimes, a bush we ourselves planted - like a person, an experience, or a thing - seems very important at first, but withers and dies and goes away, and we are best served by letting that one go in favor of those that remain. The rosebushes remind me that I should pay attention to my life and to the things that come and go within it, that I should look around and pause and reflect upon what I see and experience, because a life without consideration bears no purpose; like a crossword puzzle, the clues lead to answers but the final product is simply a series of right answers, and life should be more than that. A life considered is a whole entity, the pieces fit together and become coherent and it has meaning, purpose, clarity and profundity.

So - what's so amazing about really deep thoughts? Nothing, until the thinker examines them, reshuffles them, and organizes them so that they become amazing. I highly recommend rosebushes as a catalyst for this. Every morning on our way out the door, my daughter and I stop to smell the roses in our front yard. If I happen to be in a tearing hurry (and who among us is not?) I am not allowed to forget this all-important pause in the day - my two year old reminds me crossly, "Mommy, thtop to smell da woses wight now!" And so I do. Two year olds don't dwell on really deep thoughts. Everything is amazing to them, everything is part of the bigger picture, they haven't had time to second-guess and undermine their own consciousness. They don't really need Tori Amos, or crossword puzzles. But (at least in Anna's case) they sure love the roses.

No money down...?!?!?!

Okay, so, after a long and arduous journey, my husband and I are homeowners. Yup, you heard it: we own a home. Or, to be factually accurate, Bank of America owns our home and we will be paying them for the next thirty years. Which technically isn't so bad - I mean, that's the system. I'm okay with that. But the closing was hell. I'm not okay with how things went down at closing. In fact, I'm utterly appalled and horrified with how things went down at closing.

Ah, me - the innocent, naive, trusting one! There I was, on a sunny day in June, talking to a friend of mine who happens to be a teacher. The conversation went something like this:

Me: (sigh) "I'll never own a home."

Friend: "Why not?"

Me: " I'm a teacher! There's no way I can save enough for a downpayment."

Friend: "Oh, that's easy! Call Bank of America. They have a Neighborhood Champions loan for teachers. I think it's called Neighborhood Champions. Anyhow, it's a loan where you don't pay anything up front."

Me" Nothing? No down payment? No closing costs?"

Friend: "Nothing. Call [this person]. She took care of it for us."

Bells! Whistles! Banners and confetti! I called Bank of America. Conversation:

Me: "Hi, we'd like to buy our house, and a friend of mine told me YOU were the person to call."

BOA rep: "Oh! Okay! Well, let's see what we can do for you. Were you thinking of a fixed rate mortgage, or-"

Me: "Actually, we were told you have a teacher next door program? The one with no money down at closing?"

BOA Rep.: "We most certainly do. You're a teacher?"

Me: "Yes."

BOA Rep: "I can certainly handle that for you. And you want the Neighborhood champions loan?"

Me:" YES! That's the one. Where there's no money down, no closing costs, nothing like that?"

BOA Rep: "Yes, we can finance the closing costs into the loan itself with this mortgage, so you shouldn't have to pay anything out of pocket."

Me: " Yes. Sign us up."

Let's jump forward to closing, shall we? The place: My attorney's office. The time: 4:30 p.m. closing date. The players: Me, DH, attorney and attorney assistant.

Attorney assistant: "There seems to be a conflict between what you told us and what they have here in terms of closing costs."

Me: "Huh?"

Attorney's assistant: "Yes, they have you down for $3,271.11 in closing costs."

Me: " But that's impossible. They told us that there wouldn't be any closing costs! That was the whole point of going to Bank of America!"

Attorney's assistant: "Well, they have it listed here. Let me see if I can get her on the line."

Of course we did NOT get her on the line.

And it was closing date.

And we have already pushed back the sale twice.

And we are on a rent-to-own, time-sensitive plan right now.

And - did I mention - we have exactly 3,600.00 in the bank?!

OHMIGOD. Quel nightmare!

Assistant: "What do you want to do?"

DH: "Can we have a minute?"

Assistant: "Yes, certainly, take as long as you need. But just so you know, this should not have happened. If they told you no money down and no closing costs, then that's what it should have been. Someone should have alerted you before this. You're not the first people I've seen this happen to." (closes door) (thanks for those comforting words. I feel better for knowing other people get shafted regularly just like us.)

DH: "Well, what do you want to do?"

Me: nervous breakdown type syllables and sounds. "What, do they just think we magically have the money? I mean what would they do if we didn't have the money? They wouldn't get paid! Nobody gets paid until we close! Do they just think everyone is running around with four thousand extra bucks in their pockets? She said no money down at closing!"

DH: "Okay, focus. The point is, we DO have the money. So what do you want to do?"

Well, needless to say, there it was: Rock-Us-Hard Place.

No money down mon oeil, as the French say. Caveat emptor. Teachers get shafted. Call your local congressman. All that jazz.

We now have a mortgage and about $300.00 in the bank until next month, and it's August 10. I'm thinking of donating blood plasma and bone marrow to cover the difference.

The English language...

 Attention, readers and potential readers of my blog: I am depressed. Mortally, unequivocally, perhaps irreparably depressed. One of my students has informed me that "chill" has, in fact, officially become an adjective.

"Chill" - as in "That's so chill." Or, alternately, "S/he is so chill," rather than, "The Jello needs to chill in the refrigerator overnight." Chill, used in a grammatical fashion that does, in fact, chill my soul. The verb "chill," masking itself as an adjective for all the world to see, right there in Webster's. Or so my student said.

I confess: I am used to tossing student comments like this right where they belong: in my mental trashcan. Clearly, the editors of Webster's know better than to mess with Mother Grammar and would not permit such an event to transpire. But this time, for some reason, I was more concerned than usual, so I looked up the word "chill" in the latest edition of Webster's English Dictionary. I regret to inform you (in case you, too, were laughing away at my student's inane comment) that he was right. Chill is in fact now listed twice - once as a verb, and once as an...(GULP!) adjective.

And that's not all - as if that horror weren't bad enough, you can also find "bling-bling" in the dictionary. Who makes these decisions? Nobody polled me. I would have remembered a poll that read: "Do you wish to make the term "bling-bling" an official term in the English language? Circle one: YES/NO." I would certainly have remembered that!

Nobody ever seems to ask the American people about the English language. Some busybody editor of Webster's has decided to alter the path of the language I speak and teach without my knowledge, much less my assent. Never mind me, I'm just the daily instructor of proper English usage at my school; obviously I don't need to know about these changes to said language! Couldn't they at least have had a little blurb on the Today show or something?

("Blurb" is also now an official entry in the dictionary. I always assumed it was specialized writer's jargon, not to be confused with "short piece of writing," which is how I would refer to one in a formal essay.)

But I digress. My point is that as of now my students can tell me (with utter certainty that they are, in fact, using the proper terminology) : "The novel Huckleberry Finn is so chill!"

I am so depressed.

Murphy's Law and Modern Science

My new mantra is: "Never go on vacation." Or, perhaps, I should amend that to, "Never go on vacation if you are of Irish descent." There's this karmic individual, to whom we Irish folk refer as "Murphy." Murphy has these Laws he made up himself and by which all Irish folks' lives are governed (we should all be so lucky as to have the ability to force others to bend to our whims in such a fashion!) Murphy's Laws go something like this: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, at the worst possible time and in the most horrendous fashion possible." In other words, I'm talking about that Irish Curse.

One should always put a name to these things, no? It makes it so much easier to discuss them when we have a name to go along with the symptoms. I think this is why they created the term, "ADD". That stands for, "My parents never told me no, so I'm sure as hell not going to listen to some other grown up." ADD is a nice, simple moniker for this particular issue; everyone recognizes it. Just try an experiment: Go to a psychiatrist's office and tell the person behind that big, expensive mahogany desk, "Little [insert name here] won't listen to anyone. [S/he] is out of control. We've never told [him/her] "no" and now we can't seem to discipline effectively!" The psychiatrist is likely to drag your whole family in for a few sessions, clearly not understanding what you are trying to say and feeling (gasp!) that this may have more to do with family dynamics and roles than with the child in question's behaviors specifically. But if you throw at this person a simple, "I think Little [insert name here] has ADD," then you are guaranteed the appropriate response: Person with psychiatric degree and prescription pad will cursorily evaluate Little So-and-so, check a few boxes on a form when it is discovered that Little So-and-so has a penchant for destroying the expensive office in about ten minutes' worth of time (after all, Little So-and-so is missing out on all sorts of fun things back home to be here and is feeling disgruntled!) and write out that all-important prescription that will magically allow you some peace and quiet as Little So-and-so takes a breather for a few hours on his or her newly prescribed, mood-altering, hormone-regulating downers. It's too bad we don't have the same nice, neat, prescriptive answer to the Irish Curse, although I'm sure there are doctors and researchers in the UK working on it. In the meantime, I reiterate: if you are of Irish descent, do NOT go on vacation. No psychiatrist is going to be able to do anything with your Murphy complex. There aren't any formal prescriptions available - this would be why the Irish tend to drink frequently. Drunkenness, while not a solution, certainly helps to dull the pain Murphy's havoc can wreak. Frankly, until modern science catches up with the needs of the Irish-descended populace, I see no reason why Irish folks oughtn't to enjoy a good, stout Guinness or four, not given my own personal experiences with this Daemon.

What happened? The curious reader wonders. Never fear, I am not a cruel and heartless person who teases but never puts out. The story is as follows:

I have a friend who is going to Iraq for his third tour. (Lest you begin to feel sorry for this friend, let me assure you that for him, this is not a curse. He LOVES his job. He is looking forward to going, even. This is not a cry for pity and sympathy on his behalf! Don't lose focus, Gentle Reader, you are here to feel sorry for me, the Cursed One. Revenons a nos moutons.) This friend of mine invited my little family to head down to Nags Head for 24 hours on the beach to visit with him prior to his departure. (I realize that a trip to the beach does not sound tortuous, but I swear to you, you will begin to feel sorry for me soon.) I took a half-day from work on Friday, right before exams, and we headed down to the coastline. It rained like crazy the entire trip down; we even had to pull over a few times because we couldn't see past the water slashing on the windshield; what should have been a five hour jaunt turned into an arduous six and a half hour event.

We had a lovely day and a half visit with my friend. We took lots of pictures of my Darling Daughter's first trip to the beach. It was, in a word, Idyllic. On the way home, I was feeling rested, happy and ready for the arduous task of final examinations to begin on Monday.

Upon reaching our home, I opened the door and - ewww, what was that smell? Ah, yes - my darling sheltie had knocked over the garbage can. We're talking coffee grounds and two-year old, solid-food diapers all the way from the kitchen through the front hall. As we did not leave the fans or air conditioning units on and it is July, let's just say the smell was less-than-fresh. So, at almost nine o'clock at night, we dutifully put Darling Daughter to bed and scrubbed those floors with Murphy's Wood Oil soap (this is not an advertisement, but that stuff is amazing. It smells good, it feels good - all nice and oily - and it leaves a lovely sheen to your floors, at least until the dogs track all over it following the next rainstorm.) And yet-

"It still smells like something died in here," said I to my husband.

"It'll probably take a while for the smell to go away," he said comfortingly.

So, I popped online to check whether or not I had been cast in the fall production of our local theatre troupe. Alas, I had not even been made a Nymph, much less the White Witch. We had not gotten a confirmation email about the loan we are trying to take out to buy our house. I was not published in the New Yorker, although they "thanked me for my interest in contributing." Things in the email world were not going my way. And then, from the other room, my husband's voice, "Oh, God. Melle, come here."

What NOW?

"What" was my twelve year old Persian cat, Dimitri, who had peed on both couches in the family room before offing himself. (In the interest of not upsetting my Gentle Readers, let me say that from appearances, he went quietly and without pain. From the appearance of the couches, I would venture to say he even almost enjoyed his death. And twelve is a fairly advanced age for Persians with lifelong urinary tract and respiratory issues.) Still - my cat was dead. And not just dead, but clearly had died about ten hours earlier or more. And was crawling with fleas, which he was decidedly NOT in life, as we Frontline regularly.

"Oh, no. Look. Where did the fleas come from? Now we'll have to bomb the house." I regret that these were my last words before unceremoniously taking his poor, stiff little body outside for burial.

Upon coming in, I realized that the answering machine was blinking. We had three messages. Normal people might find this utterly normal, returning from two days away rom home, but no one calls us and actually leaves messages, so to have three is something. Only these were definitely not Ed McMahon messages. One of my former students had died the previous week, and we were only just finding out about it. I had missed the emergency meeting on Friday afternoon when they told the staff; I was driving to Nags Head in a pouring down, can't-hardly-see thunderstorm. Did I mention, I had to go in and administer final exams the next day?

We were only gone for 30 hours!

MURPHY! You jackass. I'll get even with you if it's the last thing I ever do. Modern science will break you, we will overcome, we will triumph, Mankind is on the verge of finding the prescription to eradicate your vicious machinations!

In the meanwhile, I'm going to have a Guinness...and I will NOT be going on vacation again. It's not worth it, if you're Irish.