Monthly Archives: March 2011

Just Do It

            Arriving
home on an average day, like most people I know, I am faced with a second set
of responsibilities: the to-do list. 
My usual list involves house-hold chores, like paying the bills or
mailing the three-week belated anniversary card to my only sibling, exercising,
completing work for whatever class I was dumb enough to sign up for this term,
and perhaps grading a few papers. 
Then if there’s time before nine (the witching hour of middle school and
high school teachers everywhere), I may eke out an hour of writing before
crashing.  Some days these
after-work activities can be stressful, but for the most part, they’re a part
of life.  As an adult I can
time-manage (read the summary of
Hamlet
instead of rereading the entire four-hour play) and prioritize (pay the
mortgage now, mail the card later–do guys even read anniversary cards?).

            But
what would happen if we gave the same type of list to a sixteen-year-old?
…thirteen-year-old? …ten-year-old? 
It’s not that different than what many kids juggle on a nightly
basis.  As someone teaching, but
not raising children, it is easy for me to roll my eyes at such a
comparison.  How stressful is
soccer practice?  But,
unfortunately our society has made even kids’ sports racked with pressure.  If eight-year-old Joey misses practice
he may not be allowed to play in Saturday’s game, which means he’ll be less
likely to be picked for the travel team, which means he’ll never be good enough
to get a college scholarship and go pro, so he can be ridiculed and under-paid
like all the other professional soccer players in America. 

            We
laugh, but really it’s sad.  We’ve
created a culture where kids, and adults for that matter, can’t just play.  With all the pressure to be able to
“compete”, we’re pushing our kids and ourselves to the breaking
point.  The saying, “Just do
it!” has evolved into not just, “Do it right!” but “Do it
better!”  But give a kid a
crayon or pen and a blank piece of paper and tell them to have fun, to be
creative, and watch the horrified expression develop.  No rubric?  No
example?  No structure?  Say hello to Generation No-imagination.  Because of our need to succeed, we’ve
created a world of imitators and replicaters who can’t or won’t think for
themselves.

            This
weekend I finished drafting the sequel to my first novel.  It’s still a very rough long hand
version as of now (yeah, I go old school and handwrite the first draft), but I
have the pleasure of knowing, after seven months of living with one foot in reality
and the other racing through my imagination, I have created something.  More importantly, I took pleasure in
the act of creating, of imagining. 
Writing for me is play. 
It’s not a scheduled activity I complete for any greater purpose other
than to express and entertain. 
That’s not to say it doesn’t involve a hell of a lot of time, effort,
and thought, but it’s time, effort, and thought I enjoy.  It’s something I choose to do because
I’m passionate about it. 

            But
developing that passion took time. 
I needed time to explore writing: to read widely, to write bad poetry,
and to dabble with the idea of being a journalist.  I also needed freedom to try other things: to realize I
can’t sing well, run fast, or draw my way out of a paper bag.  As a child I was given that time and
that freedom.  My parents let me
play sports and do activities, and for the most part I was allowed to choose
them (football was a “hell no” and CCD a “hell yes”, but
I’ve forgiven them for the former). 
They supported my interests, but never pushed.  There was no pressure to perform better, and, considering
the teams I usually ended up on, no expectation to win, only to lose
graciously.  But what I appreciate
the most now was that they also made sure there was time to just “go play.”  It was the hours in the woods with the
Sunrise crew creating our own worlds and the hours alone mingling my Barbies
with Matt’s G.I. Joes to imagine scandalous scenarios worthy of any one of
Gramma’s soap operas that honed my ability to create and imagine. 

            If
we want to give ourselves and our kids the opportunity to be artists, writers,
musicians, inventors, or thinkers, we need to recapture the best parts of
childhood, of life: the moments without pressure, without structure, without
rules, without inhibition, when we can “Just do it.”

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Stick to the plan…or don’t

            Tonight
I’m taking deep breaths, visualizing myself next to a babbling brook or some
other alliterative serene setting. 
I’m steeling myself to be patient and understanding and forgiving
tomorrow as my seventh graders take the long composition portion of their state
exams–not because they can’t write well when they carefully complete the steps
of the writing process, but because invariably at least ten percent of them
will pretend like “writing process” is a term they’ve never
encountered.  But of all the careful
teaching that will be thrown out the window tomorrow, there is one thing that
will make me wish the book closest in the back of my room was both sound proof
and padded: not planning.  Every
year I hand out the tests and at least one cherub, who is totally unfazed by
taking the English test in the room with his English teacher, opens up the
booklet and, without half a second’s thought, begins his draft.  And like the good MCAS administrator
that I am, I must sit behind my desk, shoving my fist into my mouth to keep
from screaming, “You need to plan first!”

            A
well-developed plan gives us a sense of direction.  It’s a failsafe to revert back to when we become unsure of
our path or when we need a push to start us off towards our destination.  Doesn’t this twelve-year-old understand
to get the most out of nearly everything in life we need to plan?  We go to school to plan for a
career.  We buy travel books to
plan our vacations.  We pay a
double-digit percentage of our salaries into pensions to plan for when we’re
too loony to work (that last part may just apply to teachers).

            Then
again, we also change majors a semester into an over-priced college education
to pursue a career that won’t pay the student loan bills.  And we forget the travel books at home
and wander aimlessly through Dublin in the rain, accidentally ending up in the
Irish version of the projects while looking for the Guinness factory.  And we turn on the news only to find
our pensions are likely to go the way of unions and bargaining rights (okay,
that also may only apply to teachers, but I couldn’t pass up griping). 

            So
perhaps planning is only useful to a point.  I’ll admit, some days I’m an over-planner.  When I’m focused on being healthy I
plan all twenty-one meals for the week before grocery shopping.  I post a workout schedule on my fridge
(which I’m straying from by writing this much tonight).  I even plan my weekend days by making
excessively long to-do lists I could never hope to complete.  And, yes, I do plan out my
writing…usually, normally after I’ve already started a project.  And I stick to my plans…sometimes, because
once I’m in my characters’ heads, I let them take the lead.  I like to see where they end up, even
if it’s far from the place I had originally envisioned.  Almost always the final product is better than the plan.  The discrepancy between the two just goes to prove that though plans are useful, they can also be
stifling.  If our master plans in
life don’t allow us the freedom to just get in the car and drive some days,
then we’re likely to miss out–on the most imaginative ideas, spontaneous
side-trips, and memorable wandering the world has to offer.

            Perhaps
these past years I’ve been too hard on that kid who sits down and immediately
writes.  Maybe he was so inspired
he couldn’t help but spew the beginnings of his genius onto the page.  Who am I, a mere mortal, to silence his
muse by insisting he plot out his paragraphs first?  Oh, right, I’m the teacher, the realist, the one who knows
this particular darling has been known to get lost on the way back from the bathroom
on occasion.  I think I’ll stick to
pushing the plans while they’re young. 
They’ve got a lifetime to see where the unmarked roads take them.

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In Defense of Beach Reads

            With
daylight savings upon us, the unofficial start of spring has arrived.  As average temperatures reach somewhere
in the balmy mid-forties, true New Englanders toss aside their mittens and
prance around like lunatics in shorts or flip flops.  Our eyes glaze over as we stare at the sandy mountains of
remaining snow and fantasize about when we will be able to lay out on those
newly created beaches of road sand in the lawn chairs we’ve used all winter to
claim our shoveled-out parking spaces. 
Yes, as early as mid-March we begin to remember the reason we actually
like to live in this region: summer. 
And what would summer be without a stack of beach reads on the deck or
by the nightstand, smelling of fresh ink and the suntan lotion that leaked in
the beach bag?

            Beach read
is just another name for crowd-pleasing, easily accessible, enjoyable
literature.  Excuse me, I meant
novels, or contemporary fiction, or stories, because clearly your average
best-selling mystery or fantasy, or–god forbid–romance isn’t literature,
right?  Literature is a crown worn
 only by classics that have stood the test of time or by contemporary works that
are so rich with symbolism, allegory, and allusions that English professors
nearly short out their Kindles with the stream of drool that falls from the
corners of their mouths.  Literature
is words elevated to an art form. 
The rest of what we read is just, you know, actually entertaining.

            One
of the most frustrating questions I field during teacher-parent conferences is
“How can I get my child to read
good
books?” I always start by asking what the kid is reading now.  Has the naughty middle-schooler
stumbled upon his neighbor’s Playboy collection?  What exactly constitutes a “bad” book?  The parents I want to shake are the
ones who list two-dozen recently read titles, almost invariably ending with,
“and he’s read those Harry Potter books half a dozen times.”  Depending on my mood I occasionally
quip, “Well, half a dozen more and he’ll have me beat.”  But usually I’m politer and try to
explain that there’s nothing wrong with reading books that are popular; some of
them have a lot of educational and moral value, and those that don’t, well,
they’re still getting people to read.

            Don’t
get me wrong, in addition to my growing collection of beach reads that I’m
stock-piling for summer, my own Kindle currently has Stoker’s
Dracula, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, and Dicken’s Christmas Carol, all of which I enjoyed reading (or rereading) even though two were
for graduate class and one was for teaching.  Most classics truly are works of art from the minds of
literary masters and deserve a prominent place on our bookshelves.  But there are too many critics quick to
shun and scorn anything that becomes too popular, as if acceptance by the
general reading public must mean a work is too lowbrow to be of any worth.  Isn’t it mastery when an author can
capture the imaginations of millions of readers with or without the use (or
abuse) of every literary device in those English professors’ arsenals of exam
questions?  Isn’t it artful when a
writer can make us care so deeply about characters we know never existed that
we weep at their grief and laugh out loud when they stick it to their
adversaries? 

            I
sure think so, and therefore I will continue to fill my bookshelves indiscriminately
with anything that can hold me captive for a few hours of enjoyment.  And I’m pretty sure Shakespeare would
actually get a good chuckle at his works being placed between 
the latest chic-lit by Judy Blume and a series of vampire romance novels (and romance is putting it politely, but I don’t want to make anyone blush). 
And someday if I’m fortunate enough to publish a book or two, I will
hold it against no one who categorizes it as a good beach-read.  In fact, I’d be flattered to be in a
category filled with my favorite type of reading: the “good” kind.

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A Better Business Plan

            Last
year when I turned thirty, I had an idea that I was going to like this new decade, but at the time it was just a thought, perhaps an optimistic
wish.  After all, when my mom said,
as only a mom can, “Thirty’s going to be your year, honey,” I was
pretty sure she was hoping I’d meet Mr. Right and start working on her
grandbabies.  That, unfortunately,
didn’t happen, but in many ways thirty was my year.  At thirty I was able to travel and study abroad, something I
never had the guts or money to do in my twenties.  I also completed a novel and stopped seeing writing as a
hobby or a dream and started accepting it as a part of who I am equal to my
teaching career, even if it’ll never pay the bills as teaching does. 

            So
as I now start thirty-one, I could wonder what’s left (other than the whole Mr.
Right and grandbabies task), or worry that what the rest of my thirties has to
offer won’t be as exciting.  But I
don’t.  Because I’m facing my
thirties armed with a decade’s worth of wisdom and experience I didn’t have for
my twenties­–funny how that happens, huh? 

            In
my twenties I was all about proving my independence.  College degrees: check.  Home-ownership: check. 
Knowledge of small power tools after acceptance that the males in my
family weren’t much help: sorry, guys, but check.  Despite all the support I had, I wanted to do as much on my
own as possible.  I was my own
woman, an adult, capable of holding the door for myself, making my own
decisions, and making my own mistakes, thank you very much.  And being too independent to ask for
help and advice at times, I made a few good ones, like putting grad school on
my credit cards, which seemed so smart when zero-interest offers were as
plentiful as shady mortgages.  Ah,
the good ole days…luckily, they offer some guidance for the present.

            By
our thirties we’ve proven, mostly to ourselves, we can make it on our own.  But hopefully we’re smart enough to
realize we don’t have to, and sometimes it’s better if we don’t.  Just because I’ve figured out a way to clasp
my bracelets without help (scotch tape one end to your arm), doesn’t mean I
wouldn’t appreciate having a friend or significant other do it for me.  And sure, it’s comforting knowing I can
confidently make important decisions for myself, but it’s more so knowing I
have the supportive ear of family and friends, whose advice I’ve learned to
appreciate, whether or not I choose not to take it.  

            So
while I’m not about to foreclose on my independence in my thirties, I am
hopefully wise enough to accept interdependence is a better business plan.  I don’t even need millions in
tax-payer’s bailouts to help me reform, though now that I’m all about accepting
help, I wouldn’t say no to someone paying off that grad-school debt. 

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