1.31.2011

Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard

First, watch the video above.  Now, tell me how you feel about this character.  Because I'm telling you, I've read the book, and I definitely have an opinion on this guy, his views, and his book.  But I don't want to come across too strong. I don't want to find myself in the all-too-familiar territory of soapbox spewing, and I definitely don't want to seem unreasonable or unwilling to give the kid a break.

So, let's start with the basics:  Adam Shepard graduated from Merrimack College with a degree in Business Management and Spanish.  He hails from Raleigh, NC and (as the video explains) is frustrated with his generation's general sense of entitlement.  He also disagrees with Barbara Ehrenreich's proposal that minimum wage jobs do not provide a sustainable living as shown in her Nickel and Dimed, a book I have not yet read but am interested in.  In response, he decides to go to a town where he knows no one (Charleston, SC) with only $25 and the clothes on his back.  He has to "make it" by getting a job, a vehicle, a furnished apartment, and $2500 in a savings account in one year.  He starts at a homeless shelter, works day labor for a time before getting a steady position with a moving company, and ends up "making it" in under six months.  His premise: the American Dream is alive; you just have to work hard enough and "stay focused."

I'm convinced the kid has good intentions, and perhaps I shouldn't call him "kid."  But the biggest detraction from his effort here (besides pitiful writing; see examples below) is the blindness that comes from immaturity.  He has a cool idea, but he refuses to see how twisted it all-too-easily becomes if you just think for longer than one moment.  See, here's the thing:  if you are a college-educated white male from a relatively stable upbringing AND with a peculiarly focused motivation, you cannot possibly replicate the experience of the average homeless, unemployed, or underemployed person living in poverty in America.  And though he tries to acknowledge his advantages in the introduction:
Whether it is the absence of a family to tend to (as may be the case for many in the real world living in similar circumstances), or my innate sense of adventure, or my overall health that plays to my advantage - all are fair criticisms and worth noting.  However, my hope is that these thoughts will not take away from the tedious task at hand or the theme that I intend to represent. (xv)
it just doesn't cut it for this reader.  He wants us to just ignore that he has these advantages (especially that innate sense of adventure - that certainly serves him better than the white maleness he does not mention here), and he offers no commentary on how these advantages make something possible for him that would be simply impossible for another.  The advantages he mentions don't just make it easier for him to do what he does; they make it possible.   Even another adventurous single male doesn't get done what he does if he has a bad back or a bum knee or a debilitating drug addiction or a mental health disorder.  Even a healthy white single mom doesn't get to live in the same places he does, doesn't have the same expenses he does, doesn't get the moving job.  You get my point.  The funny thing is that even after living this "adventure" of his, he still doesn't get my point.

Repeatedly in the book, Shepard asserts that all he has to do is "stay out of trouble" or "work hard and stay focused."  And I must agree that if a person can stay out of trouble, work hard, and focus on some tangible, external goal (like an apartment, or a car, or a book deal), he or she will be much more likely to succeed.  It's just so insulting to disregard all the things that might legitimately or illegitimately make that more difficult for Shepard's peers than it was for him.

The biggest lesson I learned from this book is if I ever find myself in seriously difficult circumstances, I'm hopping a bus to another town.  There, my past can't keep interfering with my present.  If I know no one, no one is asking me to go out, spend money, get in trouble, do illegal things.  No one is distracting me from my goal.  All I have to do is pay attention to me (something Shepard does quite well) and get the job done.  But for most of those guys he shared a shelter with, Charleston is home and has been.  And for most of them, the company they keep is not going to help them achieve the American Dream.

Which points to my final soapbox moment.  No kid of privilege can understand fully the psychological burden of being a poor, underachieving, undersupported, underfed, underloved, person of color in America.  We can try, and thankfully, many do.  But Shepard wants to deny the power of his background just as he wants to deny the power of the backgrounds of those around him in the shelter.  He claims to have done this without any reliance on his education or contacts.  But he comes from a life of love, support, and encouragement that not only told him he could do whatever he wanted in life but gave him ample models to draw from.  To claim that past doesn't play a part in his present and future is silly if I'm being generous, infuriating if I'm not.

Now, for the bad writing.  I'll offer only these two examples:

In the introduction, he says:
I am not an author or a journalist.  I only mention this to establish that my intent in this project is not to produce a divine work of literature where carefully comprised prose dances sublimely off the page. 
I can't get over the irony here.  He's trying so hard.  I'm laughing all over again.

Then, later he writes:
I knew what I had to do to get where I wanted to go, and I knew that late nights partying with the beautiful, busty girls I saw on a daily basis downtown could cost me in so many ways.  So I remained focused on the task at hand. (111)
Oh, my.  I wish I could slap him.  Like somebody's grandmother.  Just slap him right on the mouth.  Sigh.

The good news?  This book has proven an excellent tool for helping my students look more critically at a text and at the world around them.  Great class discussions and a budding awareness of how to question a premise and a product.  So, not a total bust.  But oh, so close.

1.28.2011

The Return of Friday Frivolity

Well, work has officially and finally returned, and though I'm glad for it, it means I need to rejuvenate the old Friday Frivolity.  I, unfortunately, feel like Kathleen Kelly in You've Got Mail when she has that cold and has tissues stuffed in every pocket and under every pillow and tries to have a conversation but ends up complaining that her head just feels so stuffy.  That's me.  So, just go to Brenna's blog, Literary Musings and view this post from a few days ago.  Or go to the Rejectionist and watch this cat.  I'm still laughing - even if that laugh sort of rolls around in my cavernous, echoey head at the moment.  Happy (cough free) weekend to all. 

By the way: am I supposed to feel a little confused at the beginning of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or is that the head cold talking?

1.27.2011

My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan

I just finished what will hopefully be the last chunk of reading time wasted for awhile.  My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student by (pseudonym) Rebekah Nathan was an interesting concept and wasn't terribly written, but I don't feel I learned anything from it or gained any insight into my students or their experiences. 

The story goes that this professor of anthropology decided to do an ethnographic study of college students at her own university by enrolling as a full-time student herself.  When I first heard of the book, I thought it was a true "undercover" story, where the young, hip professor "passes" as a first-year student to get the full scoop.  Instead, this professor was in her fifties at the time, and although she was relatively fit, no one mistook her for a traditional student.  She claims that merely being a student made her a peer to her fellow students, but I know she was not privy to many of the conversations and experiences that those students were having with their true peers.  She was too obviously an outsider, and she was attempting to maintain (as she should, I suppose) ethical boundaries regarding research using human subjects, so she could only use that which was readily available and visible in drawing her conclusions.  Now, don't get me wrong, I think her research methodology was above board and provided some quality information, but it wasn't insightful.  Some of that may have come from the time frame.  Her entrance into student life in 2003 didn't come too terribly far after my own exit from that world, so perhaps I feel I already know what students were like then.  I also know that students today are not like they were in 2003.  I mean, there was no facebook in 2003, for heavens sake.  No twitter.  No iphone.  It was a completely different world. 

Anyhow, I skimmed the last half of this one and allowed myself to go ahead and start The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last night.  I am finished with dragging myself through these books that are not going anywhere. I am also finished with gazing lovingly at books at the library (Nicole Krauss' Great House in particular) and denying myself the pleasure of reading them because I have so many on my shelves.  Why am I torturing myself?  Read good books.  Enjoy it.  That's all it should be about.  Right?

1.25.2011

Tuesday First Drafts

Cori Spezzati

Each day, my right hand repeats
A running major scale
On the brassy handrail of my ascension,
And I sing a song
Of myself, all the versions of my
Self, plucked from between the shirts
And boots and scarves of my identity.

The intermittent rain cloaks the day,
Wears the sky like the mantle of the
White witch, just as threatening,
With none of the false sweetness of
Turkish Delight.

And Pilate's song for Hagar
Keeps pealing in my head
Her words like a basso continuo
The strength of her voice bleeding
Into me even as I know
That strength was not enough to save,
Was not enough to cover the loathing
That killed Hagar's smile
And emptied her eyes.

Oh, mother of Ishmael,
Sarah tucked you in and thrust you out.
The Code of Hammurabi forced her hand
Carried you into his bed.
You had no voice,
But you were seen by God
At Beer Lahai Roi,
And you brought forth a wildness
And carried on.

I wonder if it will rain on that day
Or if the sun will blister
The mourners and force their eyes
From the darkness.  I wonder
If the wind will carry their voices in
It's woven yellow basket or if the clouds will
Burden them with their oppressive weight,
The antiphony of life and death running
Like scale patterns across the sky.
I wonder if I will pronounce of myself:
And she was loved.

1.24.2011

Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins

Since I'm doing very little productive in my own reading, I'll provide a brief review of a children's audiobook we read/heard/listened to on our recent weekend trip.  Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins is utterly charming.  And the audio edition, which we got from our public library, is narrated flawlessly by Melanie Martinez.  This woman's reading made what was certainly an already wonderful piece of writing even better.  Click here for a sample of the story and of her reading style.

The story is about the favored toys of an unnamed little girl: Stingray, Lumphy, and Plastic.  They are believable and well-articulated characters, and I was immediately taken with them and with the narrative style that gave them such personalities.  It all carried this truly innocent feeling, as though we were actually able to meet the toys as the little girl saw them - but without the little girl being in the picture.  I've read other stories where we see something through a child's eyes, but this story doesn't really do that.  It shows us the toys as though her seeing them in this way has made it so.  But they also do things behind her back, so there is an element of independence in them as well.  I'm not explaining the charm of it well, but suffice it to say that for this reader/listener, it really worked.  Oh, and my kids loved it too.

I'm currently reading a book called Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard.  It was required of me to require it of my writing classes (something that has kept my underwear in a pinch for several weeks now), and I was really angry about it for awhile.  I didn't like being told I needed to read this book I wasn't interested in and assign it regardless of what I thought of it.  So, I made it work by simply not reading it in advance.  That's right.  I put a book on my syllabus I had not read, and then, I told my students I hadn't read it.  We're treating it kind of like a book club, where I'm reading along with them, and we'll share our thoughts on the rhetoric and other such things.  It is not a good book thus far, but I am interested to see where it takes us.  I'll post a full review at the conclusion of these experiment.  Think I'm crazy?  Know anything about this Shepard character and his book? 

1.13.2011

What I Did Over Christmas Vacation

Well, it is later . . . just not later the same day.  I survived the winter weather outing (and even plan to go back outside today even though it is currently 21 degrees.  I'm telling you, friends: I did not sign up for this. 

But back to the theme.  The required summary of events occurring in my absence.  The stuff that has kept me from this space.  And the reading I've accomplished along the way.  I will confess before beginning that I have been in an odd reading and blogging slump.  More to follow.

1.  Immediately after Christmas, I finished the book for young people Beyond the Station Lies the Sea by German author, Jutta Richter.  Shown here is the German cover from her website.  I read the translation by Anna Brailovsky published by Milkweed.  I was drawn to this book because of the lovely cover art as well as the blurbs on the back about her recently acclaimed The Cat, which I have not read.  Upon further examination, I have found that all her books are beautiful.  Click here to go to her website list of publications.  Gorgeous.  The book, which follows Cosmos and Niner on a fantastical journey with wonderful characterization, was good.  I would easily recommend it to an older reader (some of the themes are a bit mature) who is looking for a thoughtful but relatively quick read.  I'm perhaps most interested in the relative unknown of this highly renowned European author.  My friend, a media specialist with TONS of knowledge on kid lit AND lives and works currently in Europe had not even heard of her.  I am not pointing the finger at my friend; rather, I'm just commenting on how difficult it is to "cross the pond," especially in the smaller and rather glutted children's literature field.  But I do my part here to say: check out this author.  She seems to be a unique and intelligent writer doing good things in YA lit.

2.  I've also been chipping away at Elizabeth Bishop as part of my TPR Challenge.  And I have to admit something almost sacrilegious:  I am not enjoying it.  How could this be?  I love Elizabeth Bishop!  And to be fair, I am still really enjoying the poems when I take the minutes to read a few.  But I am not the type to just sit and read poem after poem after poem at one sitting.  So to fill in the gaps, I've also been reading her collected prose.  Since I love "The Farmer's Children," (which Bishop did not like, apparently), I was looking forward to really enjoying this other side of her writing; however, I haven't been engaged.  Her "The U.S.A. School of Writing" is rather hilarious, but none of the others in this first section of memoir pieces have done much for me.  I'm looking forward to getting into the stories that make up the second section.  I also read the TPR interview and was not impressed.  It doesn't surprise me that she later worried about sounding flighty or unthinking.  It just wasn't a very forceful interview.  Perhaps I will revisit it when I finish the prose collection and do a proper write-up.


3.  As part of a big work project, I had to do a significant literature review on best practices in the teaching of critical thinking last week.  So, I have been smothering in journal articles and education texts, and I've been loving it.  It has been so long since I've done thoughtful research and writing.  That is the biggest reason for my absence, really:  I've been spending my words in other spaces.  And it has been good.

4.  While perusing the stacks as part of the aforementioned research, I came across a book that just called my name: The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking by James V. Schall.  I've been reading it as bedtime reading (ha!), and though it is not as well-written as I want it to be (Schall does not maintain a consistent enough focus or thread of thinking for my liking), it has provided some interesting food for thought.  In particular, I love his explanation of the medieval curriculum being divided into two sections: the trivium and the quadrivium.  The trivium refers to three roads (of thinking) converging in a person, and it is made up of the teaching of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.  As this is my particular field of teaching and learning, I loved seeing the historical connections of these three elements.  The quadrivium (four roads) is comprised of arithmetic (number in itself), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time).  Again, as a musician who has always viewed the study of music theory as a mathematical practice, I loved the connection and explanation of these discrete units. 

And that's it.  I'll try to gain greater focus soon.  And to get back in blogging shape.  But I ain't making any promises.  Pinky or otherwise.

1.12.2011

Such a Tease

Think I should post today?  Just because it's been almost 3 weeks since a post?  Just because I don't yet have a 2011 category in that sidebar over there?  Just because I've let the Christmas post languish even longer than the Christmas tree, which did finally make it out of the den and onto the porch the other day?  Gosh, you're so demanding.  You act as though I spent my break from school reading instead of working.  You act as though I should be chomping at the bit to report on all the interesting things I've been discovering in my absence from this space.  Slave driver.

But here's the thing:  I've been in my house since Sunday at 1 pm.  Seriously.  I have not even gone out on the porch to experience the snow flurries that continue to grace our Southern presence.  I have weathered the blizzard of '11 from the safe confines of the house, watching out the window as all the children and many of the adults have frolicked in the snow.  And now, it is almost 10 am on Wednesday, and I'm going to walk down to the gym with my kids. 

So, I'd love to post right now.  Really, I would.  But I have to go outdoors, and I'm just not sure I'm altogether ready for that.  Pray for me, people.  If I make it back alive, I'll post later.  Pinky promise.