Life

Not Like Me

When I became a father, 19 years ago, I remember helping my wife into the car at the hospital. Next came my son in his carseat. It was heavy– heavier than the seven or so pounds of baby boy. It seemed awkward, picking up a life by a handle.

I slid behind the wheel of that car and my world changed. I can’t recall how many cars I crashed, but by the time I was 17 I had earned the badge “Car Killer.” I rolled my dad’s red Mercury Capri while I was on my learner’s permit. When I was sixteen I hydroplaned through a stoplight and crashed a brand new Ford Escort. My best friend claims his knees ached for years from being driven into the folding dashboard.

Suddenly I had a family to care for and a son to raise. I was almost afraid to drive.

* * *

Yesterday, I sent my two youngest children off to camp for a week, leaving only me, my wife, and my oldest son in the house. It’s odd being just the three of us again. It reminds me of how scary if was then: making it alone, young and poor in far-away Dallas, not knowing how we were going to pay the bills each month, not knowing how I was going to get papers written for school. Not knowing how to raise a child.

We’ve come a long way since then. My oldest is a man.

Walking home after dinner, he asked me why I would be happier for my children to be teachers and writers than to follow in my footsteps and become software developers. I didn’t remember mentioning that to him, but I do think about it.

My ancestors were geeks. My paternal grandfather was a TV repairman when that was advanced technology. My maternal grandfather was an engineer at a broadcast radio station. My father retired from Ford after 32 years of developing software. I design and develop software, but that wasn’t my plan.

When I was young, perhaps nine or ten years old, we had a Dodge conversion van parked perennially in the back yard. It had two fold-out bunks and a dining table. I added a dissection kit full of scalpels and probes, a microscope, and a chemistry set to make it my laboratory. The musty smell of old camper was quickly covered by the scientific odors of rubbing alcohol and sulfur. The pantry shelves filled with specimen bottles containing frogs and crawfish. One sunny day, after several hours of mostly-scientific experiments and microscopic detection, I stepped out of that van and thought, how utterly boring my dad’s job must be—how I couldn’t do what he did. I don’t remember much else, but that conviction, that my life would be different, is still as vivid as the smell of that sulphur.

Then, four or five years later, my dad and I constructed what was essentially a progenitor of the personal computer using the chassis of an old x-ray machine (don’t ask me where he found that) and a million tiny parts from Radio Shack. We wired and soldered and drilled until all the guts were in place and properly connected. Technology was already in my blood. The first time the electricity flowed into our creation, bringing the amber monitor to life, I was hooked.

But I remained resolute. There would be no cubicles or desks in my future. I was determined to teach theology, or perhaps ancient languages. I had learned what John Adams said to Abigail about how his work was to enable his children to do greater things:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. (John Adams to Abigail Adams, [post 12 May 1780])

Adams envisioned a ladder in the quality of life that could only be climbed between generations. Adams accepted the responsibility of working and sacrificing to ensure his descendants would have the opportunity to invest in ever nobler pursuits. I needed to move beyond technology.

Years later, when my first child was born and my career in computer science was taking off, these words came back to me. Making a better life—this is part of the American Dream and had been since the Founding Fathers. When my son asked me why I would be happier for him to be a teacher or writer than a computer geek like me, I told him that he wouldn’t make as much money, but he would do more. I laid a foundation that he could build on. To rebuild the same foundation might be profitable, but it was not better. Teachers and writers help everyone climb that ladder John Adams kept in the back of his mind as he sacrificed so much for future generations. Teachers and writers shape the next generation and nudge it along Adams’ ladder to a better life: not measured according to a standard of living, but according to the advancement in the quality of life and the impact that life has on society. A life built upon the work of those who came before, leaving it better than they found it.

* * *

Like my ancestors before me, I remain on that rung of Adams’ ladder occupied by geeks. But I’m content. I know I’m a transitional link in the Beltramo family line. My oldest is in college, studying to be a teacher of History. My daughter, only 12, loves art. My middle child, 13 years old, is already a good writer, full of character and stories. My kids are moving up the ladder.

And they don’t want to know a thing about software.

Defending My Library

I recently moved and repeated a routine that has accompanied every move I have made since I got married—defending my personal library. Every time we move, and are confronted with the effort and expense of moving so much paper, my wife asks the quite fair question, “Do you really want to keep all these books?” Since I am a keeper of books both professionally as well as personally, I consider this to be a serious and profound question. It goes beyond my personal preferences and peculiarities and gets to a fundamental question being asked of libraries in the digital age: Do we need to keep all these physical books?

Photography by Glynnis Ritchie on Flickr.com

The author and critic Umberto Eco says that when people are confronted by his own substantial library they often say something like, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” His answer is, “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.” This reply, he says, “on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.” Within this witticism Eco is making a point that a library is not just “a mere storage place for already-read books” but is, rather, “a working tool.”[1] So the first part of my apologia for my library is that it is a repository of resources for my education, edification, and entertainment—let’s call it my advancement in knowledge.

But these resources are not reducible to their intellectual contents. The books in my library are objects with temporal and spatial dimensions—they are connected to times and places of creation, acquisition, and consumption. One who appreciates the associative value of books can share the sorrow of the struggling novelist in New Grub Street who is forced to sell some of the books from his library:

Many of those vanished volumes were dear old friends to him; he could have told you where he had picked them up and when; to open them recalled a past moment of intellectual growth, a mood of hope or despondency, a stage of struggle. In most of them his name was written, and there were often pencilled notes in the margin.[2]

We read books, not merely texts. And much more than the pure content of a text is mediated to us through a text’s material incarnation. Peri- and paratextual meanings, from both inside and outside a bound book, adhere. Some of these become essential to our encounter with the text, such as the ways in which a publisher frames it. Others are accidental and/or incidental, such as what happened to a particular book while I was seated in a pub in Oxford. So the second part of my apologia concerns all the things that have grounded my advancement in knowledge to the material world.

Finally, when I consider the books on my shelves I am reminded of a character in novel by Charles Williams. After pondering a bookcase, he says:

If they came alive … if they are alive—all shut up in their cases, all nicely shelved—shelved—shelved. We put them in their places in our minds, don’t we? If they got out of their bookcases—not the pretty little frontispieces but the things beyond the frontispieces, not the charming lines of type but the things the type means. Dare you look for them …?[3]

This could be referred to as the spiritual dimension of books and their aggregates, libraries. When looking at books on the shelves and in the stacks, some of us sense something more—the meaning that remains beyond the material, the actuality that exists before the accommodation, the presence that permeates certain books that we peruse. By way of affirmation or negation, of what is said, unsaid, or unsayable, the library refers to realities that are not manifested in it.

Augustine described time as being present to us in three ways: the presence of past is experienced through memory; the presence of the present is experienced through perception; the presence of the future is experienced through expectation.[4] My library—which sustains and shapes my memory, enhances my perceptions of the present, and informs my expectations—enables me to have a richer experience of temporality. And what is true for an individual library is true for the library of a community. Like books, libraries are both means and metaphors for knowledge: they reveal and represent to us what was, what is, and what is to come.

While I have not avoided the transition to books in digital form, these are at the same time easier to move and loose. Perhaps in the future we will realize better ways to remember, perceive, and experience the materiality of digital books so that these, too, will manifest for us our libraries as well as their histories. But for my last move, my digital library remained in the cloud without much thought given to its past, present, and future.


[1] Umberto Eco, “How to Justify a Private Library,” in How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Bruce & Company, 1994), 116-17.

[2] George Gissing, New Grub Street (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1891), 257.

[3] Charles Williams, Shadows of Ecstasy (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 47.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Group, 1961), 269.

 

Matchets and Diamonds

Returned from the heart-shaped continent,

clocking time, Africans with PhDs taxi forth.*

 

Those who have crossed and live, look

back, let go traditions for the modern grab.

Their ‘Africa-Independent’ is overrun;

its cities spiked with poverty, rotten

profiteers, jobless youth, the reek of rhetoric…

Banks’ corrupted leaders who front what’s rank.

 

Neither here nor there, the next wave swims

or sinks, seeks shore adrift in uninviting

harbors, stands out in hurried streets,

their tribal scars exposed still raw, the deep indented

lines of red and blue-black violets; their dark-blood

memories of machets and diamonds.

 

 

 

 

 

*African immigrants to the United States are more highly educated than any other native-born ethnic group including white Americans.  In 2000, some 48.9 percent of all African immigrants held a college diploma. This is slightly more than the percentage of Asian immigrants to the United States, nearly double the rate for native-born white Americans, and nearly four times the rate for native-born African Americans[1]. See also Reuters article on Africa’s brain drain[2]

 

photo by: jared

Pen on Paper: A Defense of Writing

As if Americans don’t offer other countries enough reasons to think that we’re a land of complete morons who got lucky in achieving superpower status, the issue of whether or not cursive handwriting is a necessary skill for children to learn has recently been making headlines. In the latest blow to the demonstrated IQ of Americans in charge of anything, and the most significant victory yet for carpal tunnel syndrome, an Indiana school recently determined that teaching cursive should be optional, suggesting that script isn’t nearly as useful as the keyboards clicking away under so many fingers to today. The pen, it seems, may slay the mighty sword, but it doesn’t hold up very well against a matrix of plastic squares with letters printed on them. 

Photo by flickr user Bach Tran.

I thought about tackling this argument from the angle of logic, but the whole reason that teams of people have been duped into thinking the elimination of cursive holds any merit in the first place is that logic can simply be deflected by insisting that we are not depriving our children of learning their letters, we are only phasing out an obsolete system of communication. Pen and paper will still be used, but the primary form of written communication will be — indeed, has already become — electronic. On the surface, I can follow this approach, but there is much more beyond mere practicality that this decision does not take into consideration, namely the art of writing.

The first thing to get straight here is that writing — notably, the term that my teachers used for cursive; block letters were just called “print” — is not simply a means of communication any more than math is just a means of computation. But the increasing trend towards keystrokes as opposed to those of the pen suggests that America doesn’t recognize these same complexities. Writing, our culture seems to think, is only a means of relaying a message, and since messages are now primarily delivered through electronic media, there is no need for the antiquated system of curvaceous characters connected to one another. If this is the case, then our culture is wrong.

Writing — and I’m using the term now solely to refer to cursive writing — is, first and foremost, an art form, an extension of a person’s soul. If that sounds too mystical or new age to you, consider this: Do you not recognize immediately the handwriting of someone dear to you? Does it not, somehow, carry with it a tone, a level of voice, mannerisms, perhaps even other characteristics of the author himself? Can it not sometimes actually seem to speak to you as though the author is standing right by your side? Just like the uniqueness of our bodies and minds, no two people have the same handwriting. Eliminating script would be as detrimental to life as eliminating faces, robbing us of the fullness of our own unique arsenal of self-expression. This may seem a ludicrous comparison, but think about communicating with someone whose face cannot be seen. Does it not seem to be lacking something? Certainly, I can receive information from my beloved over the phone, but can her voice alone be a substitute for the fullness of expression I find in her eyes, her mouth, her entire body, even? I should think it obvious that the answer is an emphatic “no.”

In a similar fashion, script is a fuller expression of the written word, something that carries with it more than just letters on paper. A short demonstration: I have in my possession a small collection of notes concerning my grandfather’s whereabouts during World War Two. He was a prisoner of war, and hadn’t been heard from in nearly six months. Back then, long-range radio broadcasts often provided names and general locations of POWs. My great-grandparents didn’t have enough money for such a radio, but when my grandfather’s name was read out, three gentle souls — complete strangers to my family — had the kindness to write very short notes to my great-grandparents informing them of my grandfather’s reported whereabouts. Two of those notes were written; one of them was typed. Now for my great-grandparents, all three letters were of equal weight. They all three told my distant kin that which they so desired to know. But now, almost seventy years later, when I hold these tattered fragments of history in my hand, I am moved to tears not so much by the typewritten note, but by the few barely-legible swoops and swirls on the other two. That’s not to say that there is no gratitude for the typed note — surely the author’s heart was in the same beautiful place — but being so far removed from the situation as I am, the anonymity of the typed note feels disconnected, like a page torn out of an old book. The written notes, on the other hand, bring with them a sense of uniqueness, a sense of reality, a sense of compassion and community between two human strangers; indeed, an actual sense of life.

And that, at the risk of being too new age once more, is the very point: Writing, in some mysterious way, brings with it the essence of life. Think of the love letters that so few people are blessed to receive anymore, or the notes so sporadically sent from dear friends abroad. Would these things still be meaningful in type? Yes, of course. But would they bring with them pieces of the people writing them? I say no, they would not. And while a typed letter may be easier to read, thus more likely to convey the precise words an author intends, this once more misses the greater point, which is that writing carries with it life, and life is, by no means, easy nor is it perfect. We are complex creatures, and so it makes sense that our creations also bear complexities. We are imperfect creatures, so it makes sense that our creations also bear imperfections.It doesn’t matter if there are a few words in a written letter that are difficult to read, nor does it matter if it takes a long time to read a written letter — indeed, the imperfections of a written letter may be the very things that make it so full of life, so full of humanness. The sharp points and perfect circles of type, sans cross-outs and scribbled edits, make processed documents too formal, too precise to communicate the idea that whatever the document, it was created by a very imperfect person. There are times when this typewritten perfection is preferable, perhaps even necessary, such as with newspapers, textbooks, academic papers and works of fiction, where the life breathed into the work comes from elsewhere and the author, in some respects, ought to remain anonymous and authoritative. But when it comes to scrawled notes left on the kitchen counter, heartfelt thank-yous, casual “hellos” or the all-important conveyance of love, neither printing letters nor typewriting will do.

When it comes down to it, I don’t actually think that eliminating the teaching of script will eliminate script altogether. There is something so natural about it in the first place, and there must have been long ago or else the Roman characters we are all so familiar with would never have been connected with such eloquence in the first place. For whatever reason, we want to create writing that is beautiful, outside of ourselves, dare I say even magical. Eliminating the teaching will not eliminate the instinct inside of us to make something more graceful out of the alphabet. But what sort of script comes to pass from this longing without guidance will be sloppy, even sloppier than it already is, and it runs the very severe risk of leaving writers of all walks of life feeling as though something is missing, some refining of this part of the craft, some structure to the marks that they will inevitably make on the world. To rob our children of this important — and I’m going to go ahead and say necessary — skill will do nothing to better our society, make us more productive, give our children a leg-up in education, or make us a more well-rounded people. If anything, it will create a barrier, one that, when all of this shiny technology we love so much finally fails us, will leave our children far behind the rest of the world, depriving them not only of the ability to write fluently, but perhaps even more tragic, stripping them of the delicate splendor found in the penmanship of so many musicians, poets and storytellers. Script is not merely a faster means to an end; it is the very vehicle a writer takes to get there. To do without that is to do without the beauty, mystery, and majesty of one special gift given unto us by God for the goodness of our individual and collective souls.

RoboRoach Academy

I may have just met the kid who grows up and cures Alzheimer’s– the person who will one day claim that he or she started their journey in biomedicine thanks to two guys on a mission to democratize neuroscience.

Also, I saw a remote-controlled cockroach. A live cockroach saddled with a circuit backpack, steered via wireless controller. When I heard of it, I was standing in a park watching my son play soccer. A friend of mine came over and mentioned it, cyborg cockroaches in Clarkston, Michigan.

It was as if a spacecraft landed at midfield and the ghost of Jules Verne beckoned. I had to go.

***

I arrived at Clarkston Science, Math, and Technology Academy at about 9 a.m. Soldering irons surrounded eleventh-grade biology students. They spent the morning building biomedical equipment, SpikerBoxes, from kits developed by Backyard Brains.

Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, both PhDs, founded the company.

Cockroaches are submerged in ice water to anesthetize them.

“This actual project started as a joke,” Marzullo says of the SpikerBox. We pause to listen to the teacher instruct the students to check twice and solder once. Marzullo explains that PhD candidates who work in solid state electronics labs may spend up to 6 years developing sophisticated, patent-able equipment using next generation chips and sensors. He and Gage wondered, if you just want to read neural activity, could someone do what costs a million dollars for less than a hundred?

They presented non-working prototypes at a conference two and a half years ago, and were flooded with responses.

“We had more attention in three hours in presenting these non-working prototypes than I did in six years of experiments in grad school,” says Marzullo. They responded and created a working model from off-the-shelf components.

The SpikerBoxes allow students to hear and see neural activity, called a spike.

Marzullo explains,“The EKG, the lub-dub, is a kind of a cultural phenomenon … [Like the heart], the neurons also fire, also use electricity to communicate as well. But it’s much faster—one millisecond long—and it’s much smaller in amplitude; it’s a much weaker signal. So that spike is kind of like that electrical pulse that travels down a neuron, and the rate of those pulses is one way that the brain encodes information. So when you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat.”

***

The students finish the SpikerBoxes; the cockroach experience begins. A few Blaberus discoidalis cockroaches will have a limb surgically removed. The legs, the scientists explain, have neurons firing in them, even after they are amputated, and will remain alive for up to two days.

Volunteers take on the roles of anesthesiologist and surgeon. Marzullo guides them through the procedure. The cockroaches are removed from their habitat and submerged in ice water. Using small, curved scissors, the leg is quickly and carefully cut and pinned to a SpikerBox. Students huddle around it, waiting to hear the spikes. It sounds like static. Gage and Marzullo then connect the box to an iPad, and students can see a visual representation of the sounds.

They discuss possible responses of the leg to stimuli, and reveal what will be one of the student’s favorite experiments: How will a cockroach leg respond to the sound vibrations of hip-hop, specifically the song “Love the Way You Lie?”

Visual evidence suggests that the legs preferred the beats of the Eminem verse to the melodic sections featuring Rihanna. The cockroach leg appears to dance.

Later, Marzullo says, “the first time that dancing leg thing worked, I nearly fell off my seat… [it’s] just science fiction far out.”

It’s more than that. Gage and Marzullo encourage the students to have a healthy skepticism. Is this real, they want to know, or are we tricking you? I find myself playing along. They could fake the spikes; how would I know the sound or wave pattern of a neuron? I could argue away that evidence as trickery. I’m having a harder time arguing with a newly severed, rhythmic limb.

***

I am inspired to make up words. Entrepreneurologists. Revulsionary. Creeptastic.

***

A group of prospective students, eighth-graders, come through the classroom on a tour. Mike Olsen, my friend, the teacher, tells them about the day’s activity. One of the students asks, “Is that ethical?”

He sees this kind of hands-on work as intellectual nutrition for his students, and reminds me that the cockroaches aren’t actually dying, and it’s true. Both the amputees and the implanted cockroaches continue their lives: eating, reproducing. Despite this, Marzullo tells me some of his colleagues feel that a three-dimensional computer model would suffice, that this is a step backward. In their eyes the experiments are less ethical when less supervised, less controlled, less mature students participate.

Gage and Marzullo see the participation differently. They see themselves at 16, longing to have this sort of opportunity. Beyond this, they wonder if an early understanding might lead to more rapid advancement in their field, eventually leading to breakthroughs that improve the quality of life for people dealing with brain function anomalies. They’ve received funding from the Kauffman Foundation, the Michigan New Economy Initiative, and the National Institutes of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research grant program. They’ll be reporting on how student retention of neuroscience concepts is impacted by these experiments over the next two years.

The cockroaches, then, aren’t the only subjects.

***

I survey the room. Gage walks around as spikes screech from each table. Marzullo holds his breath as he brings together electrode and antennae for a different experiment, the much-anticipated RoboRoach. When this step is complete, he says, “This is so wonderful, hearing sounds like this in a high school classroom.”

Another screech rises up from the lab tables, and Marzullo laughs as he returns to the prep. About a minute and a half later, one box sounds like high-pitched, club-style scratching. Marzullo looks up and explains to the cockroach deejay that this is how a theremin works as well. I find myself singing “Good Vibrations.”

The RoboRoach prep complete, students take turns pressing the buttons on a control panel about the size of the roach itself, laughing about what the cockroach might say if it could speak. They observe the cockroach at first responding to, then eventually ignoring the microstimulation.

The cockroach isn’t really a cyborg; he’s being tricked into moving in one direction or another. Eventually, the RoboRoach is no longer steerable. The microstimulation provides no reinforcement, so the impulse is adapted to, ignored. I imagine that this could be altered with a reward, a treat. For the rest of the day, I try not to be distracted by the vision of someone breeding a cockroach army.

***

I text my husband that this is the best day ever. It’s almost like living poetry in the classroom, watching students so engaged, watching scientists and teachers work with such enthusiasm and passion.

“The average person on the street, not even the average person, the above-average person doesn’t know how the brain works,” says Gage, “doesn’t even know the basic principles of the brain, that energy from the outside world, be it sound, light, heat, gets transformed into a neural code through these things, through these neurons, and then your brain processes this information and then causes your body to move, all through electricity.”

Marzullo says, “When you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat. You’re seeing that basic element of information-processing in your brain. And so we’ll see some this afternoon, and when you look at it, it’s like you’re looking at reality.”

It’s the stuff of fiction, but it’s real. It’s science and meta-science. It’s challenging; it’s full of potential; it feels like art.

Learning My Voice

Last autumn I presented two projects to a gathering of artists, actors, poets and Nigel, a British theater actor who has worked with the likes of Judi Dench and John Hurt. One project was my first photography installation and the other was an excerpt from a book I am writing. No matter how certain I am that they are worthwhile, I have never been a confident orator of my own creative endeavors. In critique, Nigel, in his clearest British eloquence asked, “Have you ever taken a drama or acting class?” And without waiting for my reply he continued, “Because you really should. It will help you loosen up your mouth and maybe work on this talking through your teeth thing you do. You are holding back your words.”

He is right. I mumble. It is probably because I am never sure if what I have to say is worth hearing. Which can be a bit of a problem as a Writer.

So after putting it off for too long, this spring I signed up for a Voice and Speech class through the Denver Theater Company. I made my way up to the third floor studios in downtown Denver and crossed through some looking glass into that side of the arts– the side I always observed with the curiosity and wonder of a child, face pressed up against the glass in the wildlife exhibit at the zoo. I joined the eclectic mix of other students in the stuffed, silent performance room, huddled in chairs near the A/V equipment. The awkwardness broke when an older man next to me asked in a radio DJ-like baritone, “Is this Voice and Speech?”

The instructor arrived and pulled us out of our silent grouping and onto mats in a circle as if it were “Quiet Time” in kindergarten. We needed to learn how to breathe, or better put, how we each breathe.  We would spend three classes on breathing. Breathing on our backs. Curled up in a fetal position. Sitting. Standing. Crouched over as if an unplugged robot. And the only two or so words we spoke for the first few weeks were “hey!” and “hello,” more as sounds than enunciations. As it turns out, all those years of running long distances taught me to breathe from the very place our instructor is trying to isolate, but that only means I carry my tension elsewhere.

As it turns out, most people speak from their upper chest or even their throat, hardly using their breath at all, because speaking means putting the self out there, and none of us, I discover, not just me, are too comfortable with that. To speak with my full breath means to say not just words but to give and have full control of my self. It means being comfortable in my own skin, literally, enough so that I am comfortable in my own voice.

The instructor tells us that actors will spend six months just lying on their backs, becoming aware of their breathing, their body, their quirks and compensations.

I soon discover that the mumbling and teeth-talk is from all the tension I carry in my face and jaw when speaking, never allowing my mouth to open enough to make strong sounds. All this breathing is rattling the steel girders in my face, and the resonance is shaking the tree loose. By my third class, I am feeling sore in the face. I am stretching muscles there I didn’t know existed. It’s even opening up sinuses, changing the resonance of my voice.  In my head I am trying to be aware of numerous moving parts: from which part of my body am I breathing; trying not to stop breathing when listening to another; how am I carrying my posture; etc. It’s like trying to play the drums while reciting poetry and walking down the street chewing gum.

I ask the instructor how actors keep all these things in mind while on a stage: exchanging lines and actually listening to what each other is saying, while staying in character. She points out that this is no different than how we interact with each other in regular life. If we breathe while the other is talking then we are likely listening to them, taking in with each breath their words– and not just waiting for them to finish so we can say our “lines.” So if I hold my breath in a heated discussion, (because I am waiting for my chance to give my two cents) then I am not listening at all.

The Rabbis say that when God spoke his Name to Moses, it was the sound of breathing. And of course, when God gave life to the dirt clod that became you and me, He breathed His breath to animate the mud. It makes sense then that when I am insecure or stressed or anxious and can’t speak, I am, in essence, holding back the life I am given to be creative.

Writers often talk of finding their “voice” — that way of writing that is unique to the individual writer. So many of the great writers write the way you hear them speak. You can hear their voice in the words on the page.

As this Voice and Speech class ends, I not only find my voice in all the ways it has been held back audibly, but I am discovering a new hue to the voice I write in words, embodying a more full humanity as I breathe the words I write. Before entering the theater side of the arts, I was one of those spectators that might say of a certain actor’s performance, “Oh I could do that!” I am coming to see that one of the hardest things an actor will learn is to be fully human. And it starts with breathing…

Welcome to Adolescence

Welcome, dear friend, to adolescence. Population: you, and a billion other zitty, hormonal folks who seem to have lost the hems of their skirts. It is quite a journey, one that last year’s school slogan told us to approach in the spirit of “Carpe Diem.” It will be filled with obscene amounts of homework, judgmental friends, and absolutely no time for sleep. You are stuck here for seven years of your life, so you might as well enjoy it. After all, when else will you be this stressed and confused? Maybe when you get Alzheimer’s, but that is a different story all together.

A rocky teenagehood is something to embrace, but below I have compiled a survival guide for teens, just in case your 14th year isn’t nearly as joyous as it should be.

1) You’ve managed to hide behind the jocks in history class for a solid two months. But now — oh, no! — the teacher makes direct eye contact with you. You feel the storm gathering. “Samantha,” he says, “can you tell me the causes of World War II?” Wait a second — you know this one! It was in last night’s reading. You open your mouth to speak.

It may seem wise to rattle off the answer and impress all your friends, but here is the nitty gritty: if a teacher calls on you for an answer, you must never EVER talk for more than ten seconds. That, in this day and age, is what we call social suicide. It shows that you are not only interested, but also — gasp! — knowledgeable. Learning and fun go as nicely together as a pickle & jam sandwich. Which, unless you are me and will eat anything on bread, you will find utterly disgusting. In addition to those ten seconds of mumbling, you must be sure to make every answer an approximation. Adolf Hitler didn’t invade Poland; he like, kinda took over some European country? Yes, up-talking is also a must. Whip up that answer and your peers will consider you sufficiently stupid enough to be invited to next weekend’s party.

2) Excuse me. I should go edit that last point, because it is absolutely forbidden to call anyone in your age group your peers! If you do, people will look at you like you’re from the planet Zork. And Zork has no Xbox, so it’s a sad, sad place. “Peers” is code for no friends. To help you with this, I have conjured up a little rhyme: peers will bring you tears. (That took me an hour to write. I think I need a nap.)

3) If you took my earlier advice, and you are the lucky befriended sort, chances are you will be invited to some football games. No matter how tempted you are to stay home and eat cookie dough, you must go to these games. Yes, that means paying loads of money to watch 200 pounds of testosterone fling themselves at each other. In any other circumstance, this would be called a bar fight. But the secret here is, you cannot actually watch the game. You have shelled out ten dollars to hang out with your friends and catch up on gossip. Those bleachers that smell like overcooked French fries are the magical place where you finally find out that so-and-so is sleeping with what’s-his-face. Or so they say. In reality they’ve awkwardly held hands at a movie and were too scared to do anything. At this game, glance at the football players and quickly look away so your friends know you are not ignoring them. Cheer when the cheerleaders sound extra peppy and start throwing shiny things into the air.

4) There’s something about curls that are … savage. It might indicate a personality that doesn’t come from a Barbie commercial. It could bring up ethnicity issues. What’s worse, if you keep your hair curly, you might just be able to get spotted in a crowd. Therefore, I bring up my fourth point: you must make your hair look like it’s been steamrolled over your eyes. Sacrifice that extra hour of sleep to slam two pieces of metal over your hair. And if it’s not already blond, bring out the bleach and relish that chemical smell while you feel like your head has been set on fire. Hey girlfriend, it’s “no pain, no gain,” right? Except don’t tell anybody, not even your BFF Jill, that you’ve gone through pain to look like Lindsay Lohan post-redhead days. No, that straw that’s coming out of your scalp is perfectly natural. If you must, rub some concealer onto the bags under your eyes to hide that you’ve been getting up at 5:00 am every morning to burn your head.

So you’re tired. Getting up to plan those football games and hair-doing can be exhausting. Plus, every teacher thinks his class is the only one on your schedule so you’ve just done five hours of homework and pretended to blow it off. Advice? Complain about it! And not just the type of complaint that might come off as a minor annoyance. You can really dive deep into this pity. You have to say that you can’t deal with the confusion, that those hours of homework are making you not able to find yourself. “Where’s Lisa? Is she holed up in her room again?” Dad asks. Your answer? “How am I supposed to know, I can’t even find myself these days.” Don’t skimp on the loathing of, well, everything. This is the only socially acceptable time to announce your insecurities as though they were as blatant as today’s weather. Adults don’t have this luxury. They have to talk about the actual weather. Oh, and politics. The politics of high school are really how you’re dealing with that new zit that has craters fit for the moon. So go ahead, bemoan the emotional pressure that is landing with a resounding thump on your shoulders. Get all the whining out of your system before you’re an insecure twenty-year-old and just have to shut up. You’ll regret not having been a pain-in-the-butt teenager if you don’t. Besides, it’s a bonding experience with your peers.

The Writer’s Life

Many of us have a disease. It might be more accurately termed a parasite. It buries itself inside of us and refuses to let go. Sometimes it influences our thoughts. Other times it dictates them. It can overwhelm us, block us, plunge us into despair and control us and yet, it will make us feel delighted every now and again, and that’s enough to sustain the infection in its host.

I first became infected when I read Emerson and Thoreau in high school. There’s a cruel way English is taught in school, from Shakespeare onward (you only get Beowulf or Chaucer if you’re lucky). We read all these authors and are led to suppose they all lived these idyllic existences, doing whatever they wanted and writing as they pleased. The Byrons and Shelleys, the Emersons and Thoreaus, they lead us willingly into a grand mirage of the writer’s life.

I had been to a Borders for the first time in high school, surveyed all the books, and pondered the obviousness of the situation: if there were so many books of poor quality, of dubious claims, of frivolous titles and rows of books I found no interest in, it would not be that hard at all to get a book of my own up onto the shelves. Surely there was a place for my own creation, and it wouldn’t even be that hard.

No English teacher had told me how hard it was to write. Writing essays came naturally to me (I would consistenttly write well over the page limit), and with the lifestyles of Hemingway and Steinbeck the gig didn’t seem half bad either. I could go shoot big game in Africa or bunk down in the Keys. I could go on road trips with my dog. I could even live, if I chose that universal writer’s dream given to us by Thoreau, to go write in the woods and do as I pleased.

The writer’s life is ever hidden from naive school age children. When we are that age, we are never told that writers can have hard lives, that for centuries they have had second jobs just to sustain their habit, or that many of them have become depressed and killed themselves (even with all that house in the Keys and all that hunting). When children are taught novels or poems the teacher never really explains that it might have taken months, years, or decades to write a draft, painstakingly edit it, rewrite, edit some more, and then finally publish a work.  After all my years of schooling I was operating under the assumption that writers would open up their laptop or take out their pen and a work would be created ex nihilo and just fill up the pages.

I would often picture my writer self. I was sitting in a cabin. I would write carelessly but never recklessly. I had no cares in the world because writers seemed to always have enormous amounts of free time and could just go traveling or on vacation or teach if they really wanted to. I had friends who would come and gallivant with me, who would want to talk about politics and philosophy and sit around enjoying the niceties of life. It seemed grand. It matched perfectly all of the black and white illustrations that adorned the biographies in the literature anthologies of middle school and high school.

It took the job realities of the post-college life for me to realize that bags of money did not get mailed to writers after they had sent an essay to the New Yorker or that publishers didn’t just come knock on your door and tell you they wanted to publish your work. There was so much to the real writer’s world that seemed difficult to comprehend and impossible to decipher. The submission process, the waiting, the rejection letters!―it had not seemed possible that a piece that was of value would ever be rejected. I had assumed that there was a sort of infinite space for publication, and good material always rose to the top like cream.

The harsh realities of the writer’s life began to sink in as well. I had thought, wrongly, that most writers were sons and daughters of the Renaissance. I thought they did certain things or held down certain jobs because they were good at more than one thing, that Chaucer was an ambassador because he had free time, Hawthorne worked in import-export because he was in the mood or that Tolkien taught at Oxford because he wanted to give back to society. I slowly began to realize that these weren’t just “fun facts” in an author’s biography; they were testimonies to the economic realities of the writer’s life: that the economics were stacked squarely against you.

The myth of editing was a harder habit to break as well. I was (and hope I still am) a natural writer, and I never had to listen to what my high school English teachers said about brainstorming, outlining, or editing for meaning. Words just flowed. Everything made sense. I could just hit F7 for spell check and be done with it. But when I entered graduate school I had a real job. I was married. I needed to budget time. I needed papers to be good, really good. It had gotten to the point where I could no longer just wing it. So, I naturally pulled out all the lesson plans and textbooks I had from student teaching and began to practice what I preached to students: to do all those important pre-writing and writing activities. I was now a far cry from my writing self, that person I imagined in the cabin who just wrote down words as if it was a part of involuntary breathing. Writing had become work.

It’s sweet justice that now, as I teach writing to college students, that they look at me with shock, disbelief, or disgust when I mention pre-writing activities. Only a few days ago, I told my new class that they would have to show evidence of brainstorming and attach an outline to every paper in the class, so that there would be evidence that real work had gone into this paper, and murmuring ensued.  One girl pleasantly harrumphed and rolled her eyes at me.

In my class last semester, a student mentioned that he had found my personal website (oh no…) and read part of one of my papers (commence awkward gazing at the floor…) and thought it was really good (thanks!). He wondered out loud how easy it must have been to write it. I told them I used to think it was easy to write, but that it’s actually hard. I shared with them that I don’t have any special gifts or talents, I practice the art of writing in the same way I had been telling them all semester: organization, editing, proofreading, good sentence structure and so on. Writing was not glamorous. It was work. There was no way around it.

Writing, even when it’s a way to reflect or pass the time, is still work. It’s always fun, but not in the way I had imagined fun. It just doesn’t happen. When you rub your pencil against paper it doesn’t bring forth art, just like banging two logs together doesn’t produce a flame. My writer’s life is not anything special anymore. My writer’s life and my “normal” life are one.

I am writing this as I gaze out a window, but it’s not out into the woods from an antique desk in a beautiful cabin. I’m looking at a Jeep Liberty still covered in snow. I am swaying gently side to side trying to keep the three month old who was just pinching my bicep asleep. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s not the writer’s life I had imagined. These words did not come easy. I hit delete many times. There are red lines under some words, blue lines under others. I’m just about done. Now. Good, now I need to go back and edit.

photo by: meadowsa

A Week Changed My Life

“I’m alive and I’m livin’
in a place where the world’s crust has shifted,
and the stars in the Milky Way,
they’re giving a party for New Mexico.
Yes, I’ve come to the desert just to find my way to forever,
and you are so welcome here, if you’re ever in New Mexico.”
—songwriters Mitch McVicker and Rich Mullins

 

New Mexcio

Photo by Jenni Simmons.

A good friend bugged me for at least four years to make a pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the IMAGE journal’s Glen Workshop. Having read IMAGE for a decade or so, I always wanted to go to this Mecca for artists, but it was either a timidity or monetary issue. The emotional and dollar sign-stars aligned this year, though, so I took the plunge right before I scheduled one of two surgeries. I signed up for Lauren Winner’s Spiritual Writing class for a few reasons. One, Lauren is a favorite author of mine, especially her book, Girl Meets God, which was an early clue to the mystery that not only did I, look-at-the-floor shy, want to be a writer, but I also wanted to write creative memoirs with an honest, spiritual current. Two, when I mailed off my registration information, I didn’t know many writers in Houston — two at the most. Seeing as I felt brave this year, I craved sitting in a room with a great author, fellow writers, and yes, even the possibly harrowing workshop experience.

I trudged through a three-year health saga, survived two surgeries to remedy severe endometriosis, and then a stained glass window of St. Catherine of Alexandria caught my eye at church, so as best I could, I weaved Catherine’s story and mine into eighteen pages, gulped, and e-mailed them in on the deadline day by the skin of my teeth. Only two weeks prior did all the anesthesia and pain meds cooperate with my brain enough to write something. It was my first workshop, and my first time to write a long format-essay, so I knew I’d receive some constructive criticism, but I looked forward to it. I wake up every day wanting to be a better writer.

On August 1st, my husband took me to the airport and helped me check in. I hadn’t hopped on an airplane alone in what, seven years? I believe the last time was to see a friend in Nashville. As we snaked around the long, long line to check in my bag, I felt a pang of fear. I was so accustomed to an environment and routine of illness in our beautiful home. But as of that Sunday, the second successful surgery was 9-10 weeks behind me. I took a deep breath, kissed my husband goodbye, and reluctantly took off my TOMS to walk across what I’m sure was a germ-infested floor of the hellish airport security protocol. I found my gate in plenty of time, squirmed my way in to a middle seat between two nice people on a Southwest airplane, and buckled my seat belt. New Mexico or bust!

When we landed in Albuquerque, I wandered around the airport, passing kiosks draped with New Mexican kitsch, waiting on my aforementioned friend. I ordered an overpriced snack and a paper cup of green tea, sat down to rest, and people-watched. Then I received a text, “I’m here!” and met my friend in baggage claim. As we stepped outside to secure our rental car, the weather made me swoon. It was in the 80’s, but a cool, dry heat — even a breeze. I wasn’t in Houston anymore. And I saw mountains. I believe quite strongly that I’m supposed to live near mountains, but the only such things in my home state of Texas are the Davis and Franklin mountains out west, so I suppose my mountainous conviction is one of those divine mysteries; Houston has skyscrapers, not large, natural elevations of the land’s surface.

Photo by Jenni Simmons.

We drove an hour through clusters of adobe buildings to the college in Santa Fe. As we caught up on our lives over the past five years, I was paying attention to my friend, but also staring slightly slack-jawed at the Sangre de Cristo mountains as we pulled up to campus, fragrant with piñon, sage, juniper, and lavender — some of my favorite smells in the world. Those mountains were painted with hues of brown, gray, pink, orange; others in rich, brick red. The land offered a bleak, stark beauty; it cleansed the palette of my busy mind. Hummingbirds flitted about, and the New Mexico sky and clouds took my breath away. Have you ever noticed how skies are different in every state? My native Texas boasts amazing sky-vistas, but I now tip my hat to NM as well. My friend and I checked in and found our separate dorm rooms. I unpacked, peeked out my window, and marveled, Am I really, finally here?

It was a whirlwind of a week of creativity and fatigue. Within hours, I felt like I was around “my people” — not just writers, but artists: people who strived to always improve their craft, and spied inspiration in odd locations. I met both new and old online friends, such as The Curator’s Alissa Wilkinson, who somehow survived rooming with me for a week, even when I had “happy insomnia.” That’s when I couldn’t sleep because I was processing all of the fascinating speakers: B.H. Fairchild, Rodney Clapp, Barry Moser, Lauren Winner, Jeffrey Overstreet, Joel Sheesley, and Mary McCleary. There were a few other presentations I missed when my still-healing body insisted I trek up what seemed liked a million steps back to my dorm room to rest. That climb left me literally panting; I never did acclimate to the altitude.

The irony for all of us with little magic boxes called iPhones was that our cell reception sucked on campus. My husband packed a nifty contraption in my bag to legally rig my dorm room to be wireless, so after I caught my breath each night, we’d video, audio, or type-chat on my MacBook — whichever happened to work.

Every morning, I’d step out of my dorm building to a cool breeze, a soft morning sky, and native flowers such as the shy Jimson Weed, which Georgia O’Keefe often painted. It unfolds in the early morning and folds back inward mid-morning. The walk downhill to the dining hall was much easier, and I made a beeline for the cafeteria coffee. I was warned beforehand that I’d drink a lot of coffee, a truthful prediction. I even carried a to-go cup to my 8:45 a.m. writing class in Santa Fe Hall. I’m not a morning person.

I didn’t know what to expect from that class. I’d never had the opportunity to learn to write from a favorite author. First of all, Lauren Winner’s vintage glasses were awesome (in the vein of Flannery O’Connor). She was intense about teaching, very challenging, sarcastic, funny, kind, and empathetic without having to say a word to display it. I can count on five fingers the great teachers I’ve had in my life, and Lauren is surely one. She began each class with a prayer (it was a spiritual writing class, after all), or some breathtaking poem, such as one by Mary Oliver. She’d also begin every morning with a writing exercise, but not just any writing exercise. My “favorite” was to write something, anything with only one-syllable words. It is harder than you think, but definitely exercised the writing muscles in my brain. I then realized I sorely lack writing discipline. A singer sings scales, right? Then a writer should write or type the equivalent every day. I’m determined to do just that.

We even introduced ourselves with one of our writing exercises, “Why I Write.” Here is mine, which I quickly scribbled on the pages of my Moleskine:

I feel called to, a calling I could never ignore. I write to witness — capture and share what I see, believe, feel, love, hate. I write because it is my voice, much more than my spoken voice. I write because it is the way I think, much better than I will ever verbalize. I write because I love words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. I love stories and want to participate in that Great Conversation; again much “better” than I could ever verbalize in this room. I write to hopefully , one day, help. And to create and imagine.

I used to fear writing until I had no choice but to do so. I write to become a better writer. To learn a stronger voice, both written and verbal.

Lauren Winner and her famous frames.

Our class consisted of about 13-14 diverse people, but we bonded, often sitting together during meals, I think because we poured our guts out to each other as we critiqued one another’s very personal manuscripts. Initially skimming these writings, I noticed several regarded some form of suffering, which I suppose is no surprise in a spiritual, Judeo-Christian writing class.

And did I survive the critique of my manuscript, “Me and St. Catherine”? Well, the night before, my courage wore off with bleary-eyed fatigue, but as each person went around the table and critiqued my work the next day, I swear to God I enjoyed every minute. Everyone was honest, but also respectful. They started with the positive aspects (a strong writing voice, and occasional humor), and also rehumanized my spirit by telling me what to improve, such as, “There is way too much of St. Catherine at the beginning of your piece. The parallels need to be stronger. Take it apart and put it back together again.” I have a lot of work to do, but I can hardly wait. Those eighteen pages are destined to be either an essay, or expanded into a memoir. I won’t know until I revise it.

Photo by Barbara Lane.

I have so many good memories I’m afraid I’ll forget: dark chocolate, red wine, the Psalms, and prayer with two new friends one night in my dorm room; breakfast with Mary McCleary; meeting Gregory Wolfe; my crazy day off with three friends (another forthcoming essay); The Teahouse; the infamous late night Thomas Parker Society in the Overstreets’ apartment (I vowed to read next year), and the Over the Rhine concert, just to barely name a few. When I arrived home in Houston, I felt an inexplicable sorrow, even though I was thrilled to see my husband’s face at the airport. I quickly befriended everyone I’d met at the Glen on Facebook and Twitter, and pored over their photographs, wistful. I felt like I missed my new family.

I felt oddly uncomfortable. Through Lauren Winner’s excellent writing class, the entire week, and all of the people, I saw a vision of a standard of excellence I craved, yet one that I’m far away from. A week really can change a life because now I’m ready to work my tail off until I reach that standard, then climb to the next one. See ya next year, Glen.