Saturday, December 15, 2007

the writing life?

I wish there was a way to write while you drive. I have all these great ideas while I'm driving, and then when I get to where I'm going and get settled down with pen and ink or computer key board -- pouf, all the thoughts have disappeared and I can't remember any of the great ideas I had while driving.

Last week I needed a short poem to go with the photograph I'd chosen for my annual holiday cards. I had a first line "Memories of snow..." It was December 7, and the weather was 65 degrees. The photograph was I had taken 14 years earlier when a significant snow fell on October 28th, just before Halloween. Thinking about global warming (what with the impending Bali conference upper most in my mind), feeling the warmth, and looking at the photo -- "memories of snow" leapt to mind. But the rest of the poem would not come.

Two days of staring at blank pages later, I had to drive 30 mile round trip to the pharmacy to refill my monthly prescriptions. I'd been driving 5 minutes, when I started getting ideas. I worked them out verbally, fine tuning it, until by 12 minutes into the trip I had the first verse:

Memories of snow
linger in the heart
recalling the joys
of the season.

But I'm still 13 minutes away from my destination, and in a hurry -- had to get to the pharmacy before it closed. I knew if I just let it go, I'd never remember it when I finally stopped the car. So I made up a tune, and began singing the verse over and over. That held it in my mind until I got the the pharmacy, and as soon as the car was parked I whipped out a card and jotted down the verse. Almost immediately, the second verse came to me and I jotted it down, too.

May the lights
of the holidays
cast their glow
into the new year.

Not Shakespeare (or Emily Dickinson either). But just right for my holiday cards.
I just wish I could figure out a way to capture all the other ideas that I have while driving. I do my best "blog" writing while driving, and I've developed the plots for three novels while driving. But only a fraction of those ideas get written down, because they disappear when the when the car stops. I'd like to know from some one who deals with the brain and cognitive science just what it is about driving that makes all these creative ideas flow.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

a perfect day

Today was a perfect day.

What made it perfect? Well, warmth (in the 70's on November 21st) didn't hurt. The sun was shining. There was a nice comfortable breeze. There were (still) colorful leaves on the trees, so the hills were lovely to look at. It was an "academic holiday" so I didn't have to go into the college, no scheduled classes.

However, what really made it a perfect day was that John (my husband) and I got to spend the majority of the day together -- not in separate rooms of the house attached to our computers, but together -- working on family activities.

Last week one night some one backed a vehicle (presumably a large truck) over our mail box, bent the post almost to the ground tearing the box off the top of the post. So today was slated as replace the mail box day. We had to find all the tools, figure out the directions, sink the post, fix in concrete, attach the box to the post, etc. I imagine that some one who actually knew what they were doing could accomplish this in under an hour. It took us two hours -- but then we had to stop and give directions to guy delivering our water bottles (new driver on the route), and explain to a curious neighbor what had happened to the mail box. It was pleasant outside, and even more pleasant to be working together, so we weren't in any hurry. At the end we had a handsome mailbox, proudly standing at the edge of the yard -- until the next person tries to turn around a too large vehicle in the dark and backs over it.

Afterwards we decided to go out and have breakfast for early supper at the Pine Mountain Grill in Whitesburg, and then on to the Food City to select foods for our newly traditional vegetarian lasagna for Thanksgiving. We don't do grocery shopping together very often which is too bad, because it is really a pleasure.

Back home, we wound up the day watching Jeopardy! and a few situation comedies. In all, a perfect day. A very ordinary day, but a perfect day.

I realized a few years back that I like many other people have a tendency to think only about the unusual or extraordinary days as special, and vowed to change. I decided to make sure to notice all the really great, perfect days, ordinary days. The more I paid attention, the more really great days, perfect days I discovered.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Can't seem to put on the brakes...

I have a recurring (bad) dream. It is always set in a parking lot of some kind. I am in a car -- usually my own, but occasionally belonging to someone else, such as my mother or my husband -- and am attempting to stop the car, but no matter how hard I step on the brakes the car simply will not come to a complete stop. I stand on the brakes as hard as I can but the car continues to move in slow motion, and usually crashes into other cars, buildings, or occasionally I wake just before the actual crash occurs. Even though the movement in the dream is very slow (the car just seems to drift of its own accord no matter how much I try to stop it), and no one is ever hurt in the dream, it still has a nightmarish quality to it.

I've been having this dream for at least 20 years, I think. The peculiar thing is that I never thought about it while awake until just recently. My (real) brakes on my car developed a problem, that required very carefully planned braking -- and some worry as to whether or not I'd actually come to a stop. I had this deja vu feeling while engaging in this special braking maneuver and realized that I had dreamed that feeling many, many times. I suddenly recalled several specific dreams from the past twenty years.

Now that I am conscious of the dream, the meaning seems obvious. My life often feels like a slow motion, low speed car wreck. I'm always trying to stop things long enough to catch a breath, but no matter how hard I seem to try, life keeps moving, and I keep running into things.

This year is a good example. This past July I finally achieved the pinnacle of academic life. I'm now not only tenured, but a full professor. It's taken me twenty-five years and three different jobs to get here, but it finally happened. The accompanying raise was significant enough to allow me to stop teaching "overloads" (extra classes above the regular full-time teaching load). I decided it was time to stop running myself ragged with so many committee assignments, institutional and community service activities, take a deep breath and refocus my attention. My teaching and advising had taken something of a back seat to all the other activities (even if in the long run those served the teaching mission of the college). I wanted to put more energy in to my students.

What I really wanted to do with the extra time I would have from dropping down to a normal teaching load, and cutting back on some of the service activities, was write. There are at least three different novels knocking around in my brain, with pages of notes on characters, plot and details for each tucked in journals and notebooks all over my office. My thought was there might also be time for drawing and painting.

But none of that is likely to be. The president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, Michael McCall, wants the colleges to launch this Virtual Learning Initiative (VLI) January 2009. The idea is to take all the courses for certain majors, break them down in to smaller modules, put those modules on-line and make them available on demand 365 days a year. The intended purpose, to serve workers who wish to further their education and employers who don't want those workers taking time off work for education.

I am far from convinced that this is the best use of KCTCS resources, either from a pedagogical or marketing standpoint, but my college president, Bruce Ayers, wants Southeast to participate in this project, and he wants me to work on modularizing Introductory Sociology. I can't say no. I owe Dr. Ayers a lot.

I had been denied tenure at two different institutions when I interviewed at Southeast 11 1/2 years ago. There are many people who would not have wanted to take a chance on me, but Dr. Ayers did. Moreover, he's given me many extraordinary opportunities to do new and exciting things, and put trust in me to represent the college in various ways. He has always made me know how valued I was, and how much he appreciated my contributions to the college. So even though working on yet another new distance learning project is not what I originally had in mind for 2008, it is what I will be doing. While I am excited by the challenge, I also do have this sense of being unable to stop the "car" and catch a breath!

Friday, November 16, 2007

the heartbreak of autumn

golden leaves
whose greatest beauty
is in the falling.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, in a suburb constructed in the late 1940's and early 1950's, where "autumn" meant the return of rain after six dry months. The few straggly deciduous trees planted by the developers dropped their leaves without any real color change, and homeowners scrambled to quickly capture every stray leaf as soon as they hit the ground.

My first real autumn experience came when I went to college in Oberlin, Ohio. The streets of this small mid-western town were thickly lined with huge maples which turned brilliant colors. Great piles of leaves banked in the streets and yards. I knew from that first fall, I could could never go back to California's seasonless world on a permanent basis. I've managed to live the last 32 years in places that are splendidly outfitted in the finest of autumns scarlet, flame and gold -- Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia (and Kentucky again).

Each year it is a new miracle. There are trees that seem lit from within. There's a hue of rose that a select few maples pass through that never fails to overwhelm me. It's the impermanence of these moments of color that thrills me. Autumn breaks my heart every year, because there's no way to hold on and make it last. The only solace is knowing that it will come again.

Sometimes the occasional photograph will capture a fragment of the experience, revealing the density of color. (early autumn leaves on the campus of University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, PA).

The only painting I ever saw that captured the heartbreaking intensity of autumn color, is Pavel Tchelitchew's "Hide and Seek" in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York). No reproduction of that painting does it justice.

Global warming is very apparent to me in the autumn. The summer and fall of 2006 were wet and warm, and the autumn color display was late, beginning well into October, and lasting into early November. This year, 2007, the drought that plagued Kentucky and the southeast, caused the autumn colors to begin normally in late September (lack of water as well as frost, can shut down the chlorophyll factory). But, the color has persisted even longer than last year.

It is now middle of November, and the hills are still brilliant with leaves, long past normal. I should be writing poems about Novembers gray and ghostly forests, not autumn colors. I try to drink in all the color I can while it lasts. I wonder, will these scarlet, flame and golden hills wither away completely with climate change? Will memory have to last a live time rather than twelve months some day?

Footnote, for the curious:

"When leaves appear green, it is because they contain an abundance of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll masks other pigment colors. Anthocyanins, in turn, mask carotenoids. As summer turns to autumn, decreasing light levels cause chlorophyll production to slow. However, the decomposition rate of chlorophyll remains constant, so the green color will fade from the leaves. At the same time, anthocyanin production in leaves increases, in response to surging sugar concentrations. Leaves containing primarily anthocyanins will appear red. Leaves with good amounts of both anthocyanins and carotenoids will appear orange. Leaves with carotenoids but little or no anthocyanins will appear yellow. In the absence of these pigments, other plant chemicals also can affect leaf color. An example includes tannins, which are responsible for the brownish color of some oak leaves."

Searching for Sunflower Girl

She had a smile for every one,
a song for every moment.
They said she was like a basket, chock full of sunflowers.
Alone in secret she danced on the wind,
scribbled poems of deep longing and sorrow.
She knew sunflowers had dark roots.

The world thrilled her with its beauty,
overwhelmed her with its cruelty.
Life was exhilaration and pain,
a wellspring of artistic expression.

One day she disappeared.
The woman who took her place
found love and contentment,
cried less and smiled less,
forgot how to dance and write.


Remember roots, deep in the moist dark.
Nurture what abides, cultivate passion.
Reach out to the sun and the rain;
Stretch to embrace the fear.
Delve deep within for the wellsprings of joy.
Kindle the creative spark, and
Dance on the winds again.