August 31, 2007

I like this one too:


taking information

seem story

deep meet


Do you wikku?

August 31, 2007

I just read about wikkus today, a delightful new poetic form brought to by the Wiktionary and Project Gutenberg. For a full explanation of why this is, follow the link. To make your own wikku, follow these steps:

1) Go to the Wiktionary

2) put in a word

3) see if it pops up as one of the ones ranked by the Project Gutenberg English langauge word freqency database

4) if so, you’ll see it immediately–the word you entered will be ranked in bold and the three closest words both more and less frequent will be on either side of it in a line

5) the word you entered is the title, and the rest of the words are the body of the poem–in the exact same order you found them (it’s all about unplanned yet visceral word assocations, see?)

6) and there, you have your wikku

Okay, here is my first wikku (following the purist model of no changes in order or addition to punctuation):


stood large within

power mother


Was it only a year ago that I wrote a post about going to my first creative nonfiction workshop? A quick glance at last year’s notebook confirms no, it was a year and a week. So, a year and a week ago this whole MFA thing was totally new to me and I would have had a right to be nervous. Instead, my nerves seems to have caught up with me the second time around. I woke up this morning after one of those dreams where you think you’ve already woken up, gone to work, and forgotten something completely critical. In my dream, I had forgotten to print  out my writing center consultants manual, which I normally would have blown off, but for some reason I’ve switched back into hyper-perfectionist mode and the thought that I might have forgotten to bring it to my very first staff meeting obviously bothered me enough to generate that unfortunate dream. So I woke up exhausted, but I did make sure to print that sucker out. Of course, we didn’t use it today.

Okay, I need to back up here and give a little rundown on the fall sched. Theoretically, if I can get all the paperwork wrangled (and that does remain to be seen, as it usually does in this craptasm of a state) I will be working my usual part time at the library and another ten hours at the university writing center. Why did I do this? Well, the extra cash would be nice, but actually it just sounded good. I miss working with writers one on one, and it would seem like a good way to get an instructional line on my resume given that my library internship precludes me becoming a TA. Plus, it’s totally applicable to library stuff given that this year the center will be integrating online chat technologies for consultations.  Technology plus people, color me there. I do still get ridiculously excited about social apps for the web, which brings me to the other side of my schedule. Three English classes (creative nonfic, poetry, and multicultural southern lit) and one library class called “Human Computer Interaction.” If that title isn’t scary enough, the prof also has a horrid reputation for being an unrealistically tough grader and work loader. However, I read the syllabus yesterday and apparently half of my grade is for spending time on Second Life. Now that just sounds too good to pass.

It’s a minor dilemma though–the health science librarianship class just became a totally online class, rather than one with four meetings in Tampa. So, if I am still seriously considering a major change of life plan including medical school, that might be a better choice. I’m trying to tell myself not to make this into more than it is, that choosing between HCI and health librarianship as a class is not choosing between two different lives… but of course in hyper-perfectionist mode I can’t quite get away from such a thought.

After staff meeting, writing time, paperwork wrangling and class, I was surprised to find myself eager to go and take advantage of the first day of evening recreational swimming at the university pool. After all, if I’m even thinking about this triathlon idea I’d better get paddling. I tried to get 400m in, but it involved long breathers at the lane ends. Better next time, right? If my triceps ever recover–they’re already twinging.

Whew, is this blog post making you feel Type A? Today has made me feel that way, which is a way I used to be and a way I don’t really want to feel again, so hopefully this is just a temporary foray into Stressland that will be brought to an end soon.

Me and my spaghetti arms here are going to go get ourselves a beer, and in the always wise words of AH, chill out and enjoy the rest of the evening.

Is anyone else disturbed by this NYT article about parents buying condos in their kids’ college towns instead of sending them into dorm life? I find it disturbing, nay, angering… nay, enraging. First off, it’s bad enough that I walk around a campus all day where I overhear complaints from people whose parents bought them an Audi rather than a Benz. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it anymore when I start hearing people compare their condos. Secondly, I think a lot of these parents are nuts. I met a couple of students at Michigan Tech whose parents bought houses and then rented out the rooms to other students to help finance their own child’s education, but we’re talking about entire houses that went for 30-40k. Plus, the child in question had to pony up for her share of the mortgage too. But being newly immersed into the upper middle class world where parents micromanage every single detail of their child’s entry into college, I only see potential for further smothering, control, and unwillingness to give the child responsibility in this article. This might suit the kids in question just fine–hey, would I really have complained about someone buying me a swanky 2/2 condo instead of having to live in Norton?–but it’s not really setting them up for anything other than continued pampering and refusal to take responsibility for their own livelihood. Do you think a parent who has bought a condo is going to sit back and let the quality of their investment depreciate while their child is living the carefree college life? Oh no. You can bet there’s gonna be a maid in there, and you can bet that all the paper work is coming to mom & dad’s address. There’s probably a hint of jealousy lurking under this rant (my parents made it clear to me from a young age that I was largely going to be on my own when it came to paying for college, even though they fully expected me to attend), but honestly I think I would have hated being micromanaged even more. If that’s the price of access to a deep pocket, it’s not worth paying. The whole scenario gives me the creeps.

But still, I think, these are just people of questionable motivations and even more questionable judgment having a little fun with their money, so why the heart palpitations, self? That brings me to Cary Tennis’s advice column for the day, which looks like it was written just for me. At least, the letter part was. It’s from a woman (pseudonym: Judgy McJudgerson) who wants to stop being so judgmental, and lately, I’ve been wondering if I should want the same thing too.
I hope any who knows me and reads that is going “whoah, Liz, you? judgmental?” I hope. I don’t mean in any way to sound immodest, but for most of my life I’ve been one of the least judgmental people I know. I’ve read it on job evaluations, I’ve heard it from friends. I am a Libra. A diplomat. When I’m around, people come out of the closet, tell me what’s bugging them, vent about evil co-workers and family members, and share their religious views even if they know them to be in conflict with mine. I listen, I ask gently probing questions in the manner of a hippy dippy therapist, and I never really care much one way or another what other people are doing with their lives if it doesn’t involve bodily harm to herself or someone else (I mean, I want to know all about it, but I don’t usually have an opinion about whether or not it’s a good idea. I want to support you in whatever you want.) All about balance. Judgmental is not something I have typically thought of myself as.

Now that I am old and crotchety and a little more cynical, however, I feel this changing. In some ways, this is a positive change. I’ve started to see that sometimes keeping my mouth shut when I knew that something was going on that hurt one of my friends may not have been the best idea–even if I couldn’t (and none of us do, I know) get them to consider changing, at least they would have heard it from someone. I’ve started to feel responsible for my very own self, and that means making lots of judgments about what’s a good idea or not in terms of where to work and live and how to spend my money. Opinions: I have them now.

In other ways, I’m a little scared of the person I’m becoming and how much I am starting to relish being able to say, ah-hah, that was your mistake and that’s your problem, not mine so hasta la vista, dumbass. If you’ve spoken to me lately, you know that is pretty much my new motto for life. I’ll take care of me and you take care of you… but if you don’t, the best thing I can do for you is to let you fall on your own behind so you have some motivation not to let it happen again. I know, I’m a cold hearted one, aren’t I?

Case in point, the subprime mortgage crisis. Am I crying for people who are getting foreclosed on after putting zero down for a negative amortization or adjustable rate loan on a much more expensive house than they could realistically afford? Not a tear. D and I were offered those same loans to buy those same expensive pieces of real estate, and did we do it? No. Why? Because it was a bad idea! We didn’t care that someone would give us the money. We did a little reality check and realized that there was no way we could take on a mortgage for 200k+ and reasonably expect to handle it with no bail-outs from family. In the end, if someone tells a pig it can fly and then the pig jumps off the roof, the pig is the one with broken legs. We could have gotten someone to fork over some cash so we wouldn’t have to live the renter life, but as soon as we put our name on the dotted line the fact that we weren’t 100% sure we’d be able to make the payments in years to come become our problem, not their fault. So, we said no thanks. A lot of people did not. They are defaulting in record numbers, and we are all going to pay the price for them via either a government bailout (not likely) or a tanked economy and job market. Some of the blame lies with greedy financiers who approved this nonsense and started the housing bubble going in the first place, but in my mind the ultimate blame lies firmly on the people who used their best “I deserve this no matter how much money I make” mentality to decide to sign up for a commitment they couldn’t fulfill. I’m not talking about people who lost jobs, I’m talking about people who had jobs that never would have qualified them for the mortgage they took out and used whatever flaky mortgage product they could find to get it anyway. Possibly more angering than these people, however, are the journalists writing about how no one saw it coming. Ahhh! The bullshit! Anyone with half a brain has seen this coming for at least two years now. On what planet do people making my kind of money (20-30k a year) live in houses that cost over 200 grand with monthly interest-only payments of 1500 a month (not counting taxes and insurance and homeowner’s). Not a planet with a sound economic future. You didn’t need a Harvard economist to tell you that, surely. Thus, I am judgmental when it comes to wacky mortgages and foreclosures. Shouldn’t a-had done that, people.

More famously on this blog, I have found out that I am also judgmental when it comes to pregnancy for teenage high school drop-outs who had both the economic and educational advantages to be able to avoid it and chose not to. Thus, I’m not jumping on the happy baby name boat of denial. I’m just not going to do it, and anyone who has a problem with that can just have a problem with it.

I can feel this tendency creeping outward, into other areas and situations. I can feel myself thinking differently about things related to welfare, healthcare, and drug addiction. I don’t think I’ve reached the point where I believe that everyone needs to be perfect (and I would never say I am), but I definitely feel more and more resentment about being asked to help shoulder the burden for people who consistently make bad choices. It’s such a grey area that I don’t think any of us will ever be able to say well, this person deserves our help and this person doesn’t, but how about some differentiation between plain bad luck (getting laid off, getting cancer) and piss-poor decision making (credit card debt for luxury consumer products or a fancy vacation, drug abuse without any attempt at rehab). For everyone but a saint, it seems like there must be some kind of healthy line to draw between being shortsighted and selfish and being a doormat. Also, who is really helping a person who makes the same mistakes again and again? The person who fixes it for them or the person who steps back and lets them learn how to fix it herself? I’m not saying it feels good at the time–it feels pretty awful re: my car right now–but sooner or later we are all better off if we’ve had to do that a couple of times.

So Cary’s advice doesn’t really ring true to me–I do care about people in bad situations, even ones of their own making, but I don’t see it as my job to pull them out. I’ll offer my advice/opinion if asked, and even help if asked nicely. But I don’t see crusading as the answer. Still, one of the starred letter writers brings up an even more important question for me: why does all of this bother me so if it does not directly affect me? There’s a couple of obvious answers–it might affect me one day, I might be scared that I am actually a fuck-up too, it’s plain upsetting to think about how unfair life really is–but none of those are quite what I’m looking for. Something about my own life isn’t good enough for me, and it’s easier to find fault with others than to fix the problems with my own. I don’t want to be a doormat again, but that’s definitely got to change.

Quite often in the course of my ongoing education, I stumble across huge gaps in my knowledge, even related to topics that I hold dear. One of these gaps was made evident this summer during my fiction workshop when we talked about Ralph Ellison’s Paris Review interview, and the prof asked how long after the publication of Invisible Man the interview had taken place. See, I didn’t realize how significant this was: Invisible Man was the only novel Ellison ever published, although he was at work on a second for the rest of his career. How long after the publication of IM the interview took place could have had a big effect on the kind of Ellison we would find portrayed in it–a still hopeful one, a resigned one, a worried one. The prof helpfully gave us a little background on the topic, so the nuance of the question wasn’t totally lost on me, but somehow even after a full undergrad degree in English and studying IM with none other than Judy Smith, I was ignorant of the fact that Ellision was one of the great enigmas of the literary world. He published one book that was instantly capital-g Great. And then never another one.

With this in mind, I was eager to read the Washington Post Magazine piece titled “The Invisible Manuscript” by Wil Haygood about the process of turning thousands of pages of writing left after Ellison’s death in 1994 into the closest possible approximation of his long awaited second novel. Talk about a can of worms. Should that book be published? Does our desire to read every last word a great writer ever wrote outweigh the fact that, unlike a journal or a letter, the pages combed over to form this second novel were explicitly written with the intent to publish and always found lacking by the author? Why did Ellison never finish it anyway–too much perfectionism or too much technology?

Given my current interest in/anxiety about how something as simple as a web browser is transforming the way I think and compose my thoughts (my tabbed browsing ADD theory), my favorite part of this article was when the second generation of manuscript hunter, a then-undergrad student named Adam Bradley, noticed that Ellison’s writing and revising habits changed utterly when he began to write on a computer. In particular, Bradley noticed that after adopting the Osborne 1 (a really old school computer) as his writing instrument of choice Ellison was prone to infinite revision, never truly moving past a particular section and instead endlessly tweaking it by rearranging paragraphs and re-writing individual sentences. He got addicted to being able to have all the possible versions exist at the same time.

A lot of other stuff happened a long in there too–his house burned down and destroyed a lot of his manuscript(just like MHK’s did when she was writing a sequel to Tripmaster Monkey), he dealt with success and fame and the pressure to continue to be Great, and his second novel was hugely more ambitious than the first.

I’m not going to make the case that the changed writing technology was the cause of his never finishing his second novel (and the article doesn’t either), but it’s fascinating to hear an account of how it did become one more way for the urge not to finish to take over. I think this is something that all writers struggle with at some point–when to let go, when to move on with the story that you have rather than keep digging in square-inch size pockets of imagination for the story you’d like to have. It might be even harder when you’ve got a canonized, culture-altering book out already to force oneself out of addictive limbo of potential and into the yucky, usually disappointing world of choices made.

Or maybe I’m just projecting my current life confusion a little bit much… in any case, it’s kind of a haunting article. It makes it clear that Ellison always thought he would finish, but time ran out on him.

Can my couch be my office?

August 16, 2007

I am honestly going to get some real work done today, but before I do I thought I would share how productively I non-worked this morning. In light of the piles of clutter currently gracing our living room floor, I watched HGTV’s Mission: Organization this morning as I was delaying actual work. The before picture of the room in question look pretty much like ours does now–all of the basic pieces that one needs for a living room, stuck into corners and against walls with no real though of flow, and covered in all the detritus of the life of a “knowledge worker.” Meaning, papers, more papers, a few books, and a lot of random stuff like beach bags and half-used books of 37 cent stamps. Obviousy I would love it if someone would come and not only tell us what we needed to do to make this manageable but also buy all of the recommended earth toned items for the Container Store for me, but seeing as that is not going to happen, here is what I’m going to take away: these two successful people now think of their couch as their office space. Instead of a desk (we have one of those too, and it’s usually a disaster in an of itself), they now have couch endtables doubling as office furniture. They are sturdy and attractive, and hold more than their desk used to. A filling cabinet on one end and a three drawer cabinet on the other–and they look great. The couch is work and play central, positioned in between said work-inducing end tables and directly in front of the flat screen televsion. I have to admit I find the idea quite appealing–instead of forcing myself into this straight backed chair every time I need to get something done, to just go with my inner urge to sit somewhere soft and warm and work on the couch w/ my laptop. In fact, maybe I’ll go do that right now… because who am I kidding? All of these new apartment people (T-Fap, sis, etc.) have gotten some of their care about where to put things to rub off on me, perhaps, but am I going to actually go and spend money on furniture? Not bloody likely. I’ll just enjoy the HGTV vicarious life for now.

But if you try sometimes

August 15, 2007

When I was a kid, my mom would occasionally say things that would terrify me. Most of these things were actually lines from pop songs.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

“Give me, give me, give me a man after midnight.”

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Aside from the second, which is just upsetting to hear your mother say for obvious reasons, these sayings scared me because even when I couldn’t articulate it, I could understand what they implied. Sometimes, you just have no choice about what happens to you.

This was hard for an ambitious whatever year old I was, and I was pretty much always ambitious. My goal, again unarticulated at the time, was not to end up like my mother. My life was going to be healthier, easier, richer, in a cleaner house… all around, better. I didn’t really want to think about things like the importance of timing, unplanned disasters as well as unplanned successes, or simply the amount of time it takes to learn how to stand up on your own two feet. Actually, I didn’t even know about these things. I thought somehow, if you were careful and did everything right, you just wouldn’t end up like my mother, with her credit card debt, her idiosyncratic car, her dead end government job in a factory town in the Midwest. If any of those things happened to you, it would be because you had not tried hard enough, simple as that.

I’m starting to see that’s not exactly true, although when things are going well it’s a pretty seductive illusion. Yes, I’m pretty sure you can already tell it’s going to be one of those blog posts, in which I talk about the most basic life events like they were earth shattering news–but if you haven’t seen it before, it’s new to you, right?

I’m not even sure how to introduce the two events I am going to discuss. I could say “it’s been a doozy of a week”–but really, what week hasn’t? More often than not this year, they are doozies. I guess I’ll just say, we’ve had two basic events on the more traumatic, less uplifting side of the scale this week.

Event 1: In which my sister loses $2700 dollars to a crooked landlord

Most of you already have the lowdown. Sis & bf went to a showing of a 2/2 cottage that a husband and wife were renting. The cottage was on their property, like the servants quarters that Mc Mansions in my in-laws’ neighborhood can no longer get away with. The place was dirty and had a hole in the roof, but the price and location were right. Sis & bf wanted it, landlords said give us a check for two months rent and we’ll fix the stuff before you sign a lease. Check was given, and a follow-up half month’s rent when the check (drawn on an out of state bank) took time to clear. Roof never fixed, carpets never cleaned. Everyday landlord says the lease will be ready, and then cancels. Sis & bf, two weeks later, ask for money back and the landlord refuses. Has probably already spent all of it. Yes, someone can just keep your money like that. It’s called theft. They are going to small claims court, but there’s no guarantee they’ll ever see a penny of that again. Bienvenidos a Miami!

Event 2: In which timing is everything… timing belts, that is

Thursday: D is driving down the turnpike, on his way to a teacher training day, when the Honda dies. Just dies, totally stops running. Fortunately he is able to coast safely on to the right shoulder and begins the long process of figuring out what his Triple A number actually is and getting towed to the mechanic.

Monday: We pick up Honda from the mechanic. Turns out the timing belt broke. That’s a 500$ fix, but the valves that the pistons damaged while unrestrained by the timing belt would cost another 1300$. And we are talking about a 1993 Honda Accord here–that would definitely go over its current street value. Is that technically what totaled means? Anyway, the good news is even with bad valves it runs… kind of. And it’s the “kind of” that is really bumming me out. What did I do to deserve driving another car that stalls at stop signs and jerks likes its having an epileptic fit while in idle? For now, it’ll still get me from home to work with a few “oh crap”moments along the way. In the near to midterm, it will have something else go wrong, and the question will again come up about whether or not to sink money into making it last a little longer or not. Or maybe we should try to get what we can in trade in before that happens. Or maybe I should invest in a bike and a helmet and a taser and start braving the traffic at least as far as a bus stop. While we’re at it, we could even try to figure out which of these two is the actual worst case scenario. A) We have only one working car for the next two years or B) at the end of two years, when we dream of moving someplace with public transportation, we have two newish cars with outstanding loans and not enough street value to pay off what we owe (the major downside to buying Hyundai’s right now is the resale, ’cause you can’t beat the price or the warranty). Of course, this all could have been prevented if we’d had the timing belt replaced before it broke, which would require either knowing to replace it (we didn’t) or having a mechanic who believed in maintaining cars over 100k miles who would think to recommend that we did. American mechanics pretty much assume that after 100k all you want are band-aids, not the kind of upkeep that keeps you riding in the long term.

Chalk it up to live and learn, but I am really not enjoying all this living and expensive learning. Especially when, in the back of my mind, this must all be my fault. Somewhere out there is a girl who got a marketable degree, didn’t move to south Florida, knew to be a hard ass about real estate and protected her sister from losing almost 3 grand for nothing, and remembered to change the timing belt. Every incident like these ones simply reminds me that I did not turn out to be her.

The one small consolation seems to be that after about three solid rounds of nasty life surprises, I’m learning to say oh well when I realize that. Oh well, I’m not that girl. Chances are that girl isn’t even that girl… but even if she is, and some of them are, I’d still rather take my chances on me, and my life, which currently includes a cat standing on her hind legs in my lap to reach up and put her front paws around my neck. I may not know jack about cars or earning a living, but I have a hugging cat.

Also, now that I’m beginning to expect rather than hope to avoid getting battered like a punching bag every other month, I’m also getting better at reminding myself that bad things do not happen just to me, and that for everything that seems bad so far there probably could have been something worse. The car could have been totaled in a wreck, which would have hurt the driver and caused our insurance to go up. Sis & bf could have moved into the place only to find out that a badly patched roof blew off during the upcoming hurricane season, destroying all of their stuff. Things could definitely have gone better, but they also could have been much worse, and we wouldn’t have probably “deserved” any of it either which way. It does just kind of happen to you while you are making those other plans about how you are going to make more money, run more miles, and really clean your apartment.

Still, when all the ways it could have been worse have been imagined and the war stories have been compared, deep down inside you’d still rather be the person this had just never happened to. You’d rather be the person who had never even imagined it could happen. That’s why the Stones were right, and so was my mom, and just like both of them I’m getting older and wiser.