Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Perfect Novel?

I'm teaching a class this fall that I'm (1) pretty much unqualified for and (2) totally excited about. It's called The Craft of Novel Writing and we're going to... wait for it... write a novel! We're going to participate in NaNoWriMo in the month of November, and we're going to read a couple books about craft of writing and a novel.

So here's my big quandary. I want my students to read The Perfect Novel. One that is literary but also accessible. 20th or 21st century (not that I don't love the Victorians, but we're not working a three-volume Dickensian novel here.) I need one that is not too long, so we have time to read it, outline, and kind of dissect it to see what makes it work. A novella would be fine. YA novels are fair game, but The Hate U Give is too long and also being read by most of our English majors this semester in a class on YA lit being taught by one of my colleagues.

At the moment I'm considering The Great Gatsby... it's got easily traceable themes, not too long, not too many characters, a very specific writing style... but extra points if you can suggest a novel not written by a white dude. (No offense to white dudes, but because their voices are so often heard in the world, I like to highlight other voices.) Gatsby would work. But I'm not excited about it, you know?

Any great suggestions? Like the novel you read that made you think you wanted to write a novel? It's  a line we have to navigate carefully because it can't be so wonderful that it's off-putting--like "No one else should even write anything because it will never measure up to Beloved."

And I don't really want sci-fi or dystopia because I'm hoping to gently nudge my students away from those go-to genres (unless they're set on it, and then that's fine... it's their book). The form needs to be standard-ish, so nothing like Lincoln in the Bardo, although first person or third person narrator is okay. Multiple narrators might be too ambitious for us.


I was thinking about A Wrinkle in Time but it's too weird. Ruling it out.

The Catcher in the Rye? I used to love this book and now I can't stand it. (Go ahead and give me my I'm Officially an Adult and Also Really Lame badge).

Something that was a recent best seller? I'm looking at this list and I want to read ALL OF THESE, starting with Ill Will and Sing, Unburied, Sing but I don't have time to read the whole list before I decide. And I am pretty sure I should read the book (or at least skim it) before I choose it, and I need to decide SOON. Like, within a week.

(For the record: I've been thinking about this since before Christmas and I still haven't reached a decision.)

Share your thoughts please!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

3 Things on My Mind


Have you all heard of the enneagram personality types?

I'm a fan of personality quizzes. I'm a Myers-Briggs INFJ. (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging.) Of the Four Tendencies, I'm a Questioner.

I think it's fun to recognize myself in these descriptions, and to consider strengths and weaknesses based on the way I tend to respond in specific situations.

When I first heard about the Enneagram, I didn't think any of the descriptions fit me. Also they all seemed kind of unpleasant! But I started reading and listening to podcasts more about them, and I realized that I am a hardcore 4 - The Individualist (sometimes called The Romantic).

I think the reason I initially felt that enneagram skews negative is because they talk about the best and worst case personality features, or the ways we tend to behave when we're making healthy choices and the ways we tend to behave when we are stressed or making unhealthy choices. A big one that rang true for me is a tendency to withdraw--remember how I dropped off Facebook after Eliza died? I basically dropped out of life. And I imagine that is true for many people who are deeply grieving after they lose a loved one, but it's not necessarily true for everyone. Some people find energy and comfort in being surrounded by others, but that was really hard for me (and other 4's, as it turns out!). Anyway, there are lots of books and podcasts on the topic, but if you just want to dip your toe in, here's a quiz and here's an explanation of the personality types.

Oh, and most people get two or even three similarly scored on the quiz, so the best advice is just to read the types and see which one resonates with you, or, in my case, which one you resist the most. It just might be revealing something about you!

At the advice of my friend Monica, I signed up for their daily e-mails (based on your type) and the ones I've gotten have been hilariously spot on. They basically encourage you to do something good for yourself that might go against type. One said, "As a withdrawn type, you tend to be too disconnected from your body. Get active with something like cycling, yoga, or jogging."

It's like UGH STOP KNOWING WHO I AM, Enneagram!

(Also, I did yoga yesterday and this morning, probably because of that e-mail.)

* * *


I saw George Saunders speak at our local library last Saturday and he was wonderful. I want to take his classes and be his best friend. He was charming and self-deprecating and funny and delightful. I so appreciated hearing him talk about his own writing process and the "line by line" approach he takes, and how that helps him divorce himself from his work so that he can revise and edit with a clear eye for improvement. It was truly inspiring and it has been something I've reflected on every day since as I do my own writing.

If you haven't read George Saunders, he has written a lot of brilliant, quirky, weird, dark, and funny short stories. I bought his collection The Tenth of December after seeing him speak. He also wrote a novel called Lincoln in the Bardo which is a fascinating tale of Lincoln after his eleven-year-old son Willie dies, but it's not just about Lincoln, it's also about spirits in a cemetery. It doesn't have a traditional narrative, but is almost written like a script with many voices and excerpts from historical books and papers--some of which are real and some of which are completely invented by Saunders.

The audio book is amazing--they got different people to voice every single character. Some are actors (notably Nick Offerman, whom you may know as Ron from Parks and Recreation, and Megan Mullalley, whom you may know as Karen from Will and Grace or as Tammy 2 from Parks and Recreation). But there were so many--over 100 separate voices--so Saunders told us that his parents, his siblings, his wife and kids, basically everyone he knows has a small part in the audio book. I listened to a lot of it (I got it through the OverDrive app connected to my library), but honestly the parts about Lincoln's grief are so beautifully and truthfully done that I was crying too much in the car on the way to work and had to stop. Still, I think if I were visiting it for the first time, I would read it and then listen to it. It's worth doing both. Such a strange, lovely, heartbreaking and funny little book.

(Also Saunders won both a McArthur genius grant and a Man Booker prize, so I'm not the only person who thinks it's brilliant.)

Speaking of writing, I signed up for a sort of guided online writing class. It's called Truth Collaborative and when I got a discount code I decided to do it as a way to jump start my own writing. I've been wanting to get back into my book project and doing more writing in general, but I knew I needed something to kick me into gear. So... spending money on something that has guidelines and lessons and "due dates" and a "teacher" who will give me feedback? Yes to all those things. I've really enjoyed it and the writing that it has prompted me to do. Honestly, a lot of it has been familiar because I did so much blogging and journaling after Eliza died, but obviously that has shifted in more recent years/months, so this was a nice refocus for me.

* * *

I. Just. Don't. Get. It.

I saw this headline today:

Florida Legislature rejects weapons ban with massacre survivors en route to Capitol

How is this possible? How is it possible that a bunch of old white dudes decides that we're not going to ban weapons made to kill people after a guy just slaughtered a bunch of kids and high school teachers with an assault rifle? How will these people sleep at night? What excuse do you tell yourself to justify voting no on whether to debate this as a possibility? This was a move toward conversation and discussion about regulation and potentially banning some kinds of weapons. How do you say no to that? And how do you say no to a bus full of kids who have just survived a living nightmare? Kids who in just a few years (or months) will be voting?

I hope the Millennials rise like a tidal wave and clean house in these legislative bodies that are self-serving and not working for the best interests of the people they represent.

90% of American support common sense gun laws. 100% of concerned parents want to keep their kids safe.

I have friends and family members who practice conceal and carry in the state of Missouri. I can't imagine one of them who would resist a background check, training course, and permit associated with the privilege of carrying a hidden, loaded weapon. (Yes, you read that right. You don't need a permit to conceal and carry in Missouri. You just need to be 19.) Honestly, it just makes me want to cry. You want a "well-regulated militia"? Fine. Then regulate it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

So Many Things

I've got to start with Florida. Another school shooting.

I called Roy Blunt this morning (his Washington office number is 202-224-5721). I said that I'm calling because I'm so concerned about the shooting and I said that we have to put into place common sense regulation of automatic rifles. I also said that I want to see Senator Blunt stop taking money from the NRA and I'll be watching his campaign donations closely. I think it's immoral to take money from gun lobbyists in light of the mass murders that take place on a regular basis in our country.

I'm from a small town where hunting kicks off the holiday season. I know tons of people who are gun owners. The point is NOT to take away guns (and Obama was never trying to do that, no matter what some people think). The point is to keep guns away from dangerous people and that no one outside of law enforcement needs to own military grade weapons.

And I know the old argument that if you make guns illegal, only criminals will own them. I roll my eyes at this. If you limit accessibility to military grade weapons, we will pay much closer attention to who is buying (or trying to buy) them. We don't need to be pumping out into circulation weapons that make it so easy to kill massive amounts of people.

It is morally wrong not to regulate the accessibility of machines that can kill people--just as we regulate automobiles.

Everyday, my entire family goes to school. Elementary school or university, each one of us shows up to a place that could easily be a target for a shooter who wants to make some kind of sick statement. It is terrifying, and there is no way to twist it around so that I feel safer. Small school, big school, elementary school, high school, rural community, suburban community... It could happen anywhere, and you never think it could happen to you until it does.

* * *

We reined things in for Valentines this year... I got the girls each a Shimmer and Shine activity book and a ring pop and some candy hearts and a book to read. They were THRILLED--mostly with the Shimmer and Shine stuff--but I was delighted with the two books I gave them, which we read last night.

Coco got Love by Matt de la Pena, which is so beautifully written and beautifully illustrated. We read it together and then she wanted to read it, which means she looks at the pictures and makes something up, and then turns the book around to show us the pictures like she is a teacher. (I love it when she reads.) It also made me realize how much We Stories has influenced the way we talk about books and illustrations, because even though ALL I DID was read the book as it is written--a book about how families love each other--when she started reading it, she said, "Some people have darker skin and some people have lighter skin. And she is the mom and he is the dad."

Zuzu got Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, and it hit me right in the feels. It's also pitched perfectly to where Zuzu is intellectually/socially/developmentally right now. It's a little long for Coco, but Zuzu was completely wrapped up in the story and when I got to the end, she asked me to read it again. And it's short enough that I was happy to oblige.

SPOILER ALERT: It's about a new girl at school and the narrator noticing that the new girl, Maya, doesn't have nice clothes or new shoes. She sits by the narrator, by the narrator won't return her smile. The narrator already has a group of friends, so she says no when Maya wants to play. And she doesn't speak up when others say mean things. Then one day, the teacher talks about kindness and the ripple effect of putting kindness out in the world, and the narrator realizes that she wants to be kind to Maya--but it's too late. Maya's family has moved.

I can't tell you how much I liked that the book didn't have some cutesy wrap up where Maya comes over for a slumber party or something. It felt so real and honest, and Zuzu seemed to understand Maya's loneliness and the narrator's regret at the end of the book. She told me, "I think Maya is poor," and when I asked what she would do, she said that she would be kind. She also thought people were mean to Maya because they were jealous of her, which I thought was interesting. SO COMPLEX!

* * *

I want to wrap this up with three things, but I have a massage scheduled and I need to get out of here. If someone could just massage away the stress of my committee work, my personal anxieties, and that stack of grading I need to get through, that would be amazing.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Butter Making

I feel like everyone who reads this has probably seen these pictures on IG and FB, but I had to recap our butter lesson here. Zuzu gave us a lesson, just like she was a little Montessori teacher.

She had previously made a list of what we needed.

In case you don't read Kindergartener, that says:

and then she drew a picture of a colander

So we followed the list and got everything ready. Then, she poured the cream. (You can see little sister was an enthusiastic student.)

Dropping in a pinch of salt.

Then you shake it.

And when you don't hear the marble anymore, you open the container.

And pour out the butter!

Spread it on your crackers.

Little Sister needed a closer look.

Serve! Zuzu was so proud to teach us how to make butter. I mean, she was just beaming. She was SO proud of herself and so happy. Honestly, I got teary-eyed because you could just feel the pride and happiness radiating off of her. I took several blurry pictures because she was gesturing so wildly as she expressed herself, and she could not stop grinning.

And she was also enthusiastic about eating it.

Coco watched the lesson, so then she got to try.

We've got lots of fresh butter at our house now. Bring some saltine crackers and come on over.

Monday, February 5, 2018

February is the New January

I am not exaggerating when I say that Friday was the first day since January 1 that I felt like my old self in terms of my energy level.

I have therefore declared February the new January and I am starting my new year now, by crossing off tasks like: "Organize cabinets in laundry room" and "Get caught up on laundry."

Listen, after an entire month of wanting to go to bed at 8pm, productivity feels really good.

We had a fun weekend with my parents in town. The girls started ballet and tap, which was super cute. Somehow I didn't get any pictures of them in their outfits, but they were both into it. The dance academy they're going is kind of unusual, because parents can't watch the classes. There is a waiting room, but then instructor closes the door to the dance studio and there aren't any windows to observe. We can hear the instructor (I heard her say, "Good, Coco!" quite a few times #mombrag) but we can't watch. In fact, most parents drop off and come back to pick up at the end of the hour. I felt kind of sad about this for a second, because wouldn't it be nice to watch the cuteness? And then I was like... A free hour on Saturday morning???? I think I can get used to it.

* * *

Zuzu's behavior this past week had lots of room for improvement. And I kept getting reduced to using her best friend's birthday party as leverage, which means I have no idea what I'm going to do this week when I can't threaten to call Gemma's dad and say we're not going to her party.

We just finished reading Ramona the Pest and have moved to Ramona the Brave and my girl Zuzu may be the big sister, but she is definitely more Ramona than Beezus.

{Insert the inevitable curiosity about the kind of Beezus Eliza might have been...}

Coco has been observing Zuzu's behavior closely, particularly when Zuzu gets in trouble, and after we have scolded Zuzu, Coco will pipe up, "Mama, am I doing the right thing?"

Coco may not be a Ramona, but she is figuring out how to be a pest to her big sister.

* * *

The girls finished up their Valentines last night, which has me patting myself on the back for being ahead of the game. There might have been a moment when my coaching/encouragement of mermaid creation got a little bossy, because Zuzu said, "Mommy! These are not YOUR Valentines! These are MY Valentines!"

I was actually really embarrassed to realize that I had been overstepping in giving directions, so I told her that she was right and she could draw their mouths however she wanted.

And that's why some of her friends will be getting meth teeth mermaids. #happyvalentinesday #thissirenwantstodrownyou

* * *

Oh, and Coco doesn't do the right thing all the time...

My dad was having the girls work on a craft project where they wound string around nails to make hearts and he left the scissors and yard on the table. I walked through the kitchen and noticed that there was also a comb on the table (which grosses me out) and long strands of hair in the comb (which I initially assumed was doll hair).

Some investigation later, we determined that Coco had YET AGAIN cut her hair. Only one small section, but cut down to the scalp.

I told her that she did not do the right thing, and I asked her why she keeps cutting her hair short if she wants it to grow long. She couldn't answer me, but she was obviously embarrassed.

Then David said quietly, "Coco, I'm very disappointed."

And Coco ran behind a chair and cried and told me that she didn't like it when Daddy screamed at her.

I'm hoping maybe David's disappointment is enough to put her off DIY makeovers, but we'll see. In the meantime, we're reinforcing the All Scissors Out of Reach Rule.

* * *

Oh, and my mom and I took Zuzu to see The Sound of Music this weekend. It was a great show, of course, and we really enjoyed it. Truth be told, I think Zuzu was a little young for the show. She got restless and had a lot of questions and couldn't always remember to whisper them.

But she was a good sport, and she did pay close attention to what was happening on stage. She followed the plot pretty well, especially when you consider she doesn't have any context for nuns or Nazis. And she definitely enjoyed the music and even did some singing along, which I thought was super cute.

She also rocked a dinosaur purse, made out of construction paper and staples.

Looking good and feeling good! Here's to the New January: February. May it feel short and sweet.