Month: January 2012

Save the Worms

Coastal areas with their sea turtle preserves have nothing on red clay states like Georgia and Alabama.

Yesterday morning I was walking Duncan. The sky was just a little lighter than the gray of the asphalt paving of my apartment complex. It was warm for a January morning, and the rain had just stopped. As we made our way around the buildings, one sniff at a time, I began to notice earthworms. I will always notice a worm. I invariably think back to when I was a kid we would go digging for worms to take fishing. Back then, I almost never found any, so whenever I see them now, I notice.

These were perfect conditions for them to come out of their dirt to…well, to do whatever it is that earthworms do. Except, I think ideally, they would come out of their dirt to explore more dirt–not pavement. I noted to Duncan, who was mostly ambivalent, that there sure were a lot of worms out. We turned a corner and sidestepped a large puddle under a cypress tree, when I looked out into the street between the buildings. There, spaced out across the deep gray like long flesh-colored surfaced submarines, were about a hundred worms. Sadly, some of them had been flattened by early morning drivers.

It was one of those sights I will stop to see. I took hope for a minute when it looked like more of them were nearing the curb, approaching safety. But taking a deeper look, it was clear they were not coming but going–further out in harms way. I hoped again for the best, since it was still early and the college kids had not awakened and headed to Starbucks in their cars. They would most likely not notice the wriggling armada.

Two hours later Duncan and I made our second round of the day. When we got to that same spot, I saw not a single worm, dead or alive. Maybe they were washed away; maybe they made it. I do not know.

Some people take time to smell the flowers or  see the beauty in a sunset. I’ll do those things too, but I’ve learned there is something majestic in the resolve of hundreds of earthworms that know when it is time to emerge.
More on this later.

The Oldest (Writing) Trick in the World

I would bet money that the “oldest (writing assignment) trick in the world” was invented by a high school boy. The kind that ends up a radio show morning dj who, along with one or two other sidekicks–including a woman who is usually the brunt of the sexual joking–fills the a.m. work traffic airwaves with inside jokes and guffaws. I avoid morning radio shows (Rick and Bubba in the Morning, a favorite of my 21 year-old son, which proves my point) at all costs. But in case your’re wondering, I am not a radical public radio snob either, like some of my egghead friends. I don’t need my head hurting from either end of the spectrum in the morning. I send them some money every now and then, though, just to annoy the Republicans. Anyway, you know the kid I’m talking about. 
This kid would invariably appear in my Junior English class, where I taught from 1987-2001, and submit a major essay assignment with entitled, “Writing an Essay for Mrs. Hyde’s (that was me then) Formal Essay Assignment.” He then spent 5 paragraphs (intro, body, conclusion) writing about writing (or lack thereof). It was, at first, a cute trick. I always made sure to tweak directions for subsequent essays to include, “and please do not write an essay about how you stayed up all night attempting to compose an essay and here it is, etc., etc.” That usually worked. Actually, some of those compositions were not so bad, probably because the kid thought it was a good idea, got excited about it, and therefore, wrote it pretty well. 
This is not exactly that kind of entry. Only half of writing a blog is to mine fresh ideas and strive to find my own relevance. The other half is to write–to keep a writing exercise journal. That means writing–even sometimes lacking a fresh idea. So, this one may not be too innovative, but I have a thought or two about it. 
I’ve been thinking a lot about being relevant. I wrote a grant proposal a few weeks ago. Granted, I came up with a topic from scratch–it wasn’t my lifelong burning passion to be sure. Still, I spent weeks on it, and I know it was well written. I’ve never received external funding for my work (possibly because my work sounds a lot like this) and this was a test case at the very least. I was turned down–and I really thought it stood a chance of getting funding. 
A big part of academic life (being a professor, for those who do not regularly refer reverently to “the academy”) is rejection. It’s something most of us at one time or another must deal with. I’ve been doing it for seven years and it isn’t getting easier. Although, I realize even when I didn’t do anything but eat Little Debbie cakes and watch tv at home (dreary, lost years indeed) rejection was still present in different ways and still was not any fun. Academics get rejected in all kinds of ways: by journals, conferences, universities where we apply for jobs, publishing companies. We get rejected by anybody who has the ability to reject us, it seems. Some of us more than others, which is an entry all to itself and is coming, believe me. 
The grant proposal rejection sparked an ongoing thought for me lately: relevance. Nobody has actually used that word referring to my work; when people do actually read it, it is usually well-received. More to their surprise than mine. This comes under my being my own toughest critic. Here’s the thing. Writing is what I want to do; I am a professor, for crying out loud, which does more than just imply that I have something to profess. I don’t have any news, or celebrity gossip, and I don’t write about vampires. I don’t have any more of a clue than most other people why some children do better in school than others. For me, professing can be very humbling. Who the hell am I and what the hell do I have to profess? Are my thoughts, am I (for it really is the the same thing, see?) relevant? I think about this a lot, and I’m not finished thinking about it. 
More on this later. 

How to Make a Million Dollars

I don’t know whether to laugh out loud or rage loudly when someone–usually my dad or daughter, who share political views–parrots the far right Glen Beck propaganda that teachers make millions of dollars over our lifetimes and, with the underhanded workings of powerful teacher unions, have more millions of benefits.

If only teachers’ egregious salaries could be reigned in, perhaps we would turn our hearts and minds to educating the country’s rosy-cheeked young. Greedy teachers would then no longer be the ruination of the economy. My daughter actually said to me that Big Education was as bad as Big Oil. But I could hardly hear her over the roar of the engine of my private jet.

I am a professor–a poor one. Not all of us are created equal. Salary is often based on your discipline. The more “marketable” you would be in the real world, the higher your salary at a university. For example, since presumably a marketing major in the corporate world would make significantly more than an education major, business profs make more than I do. Etc. Also, professors often obtain grants to fund projects and supplement income. Problem is, I don’t research anything that could get funded. I’m a theorist. The public generally feels there is enough theory floating around already. I have colleagues who are paid during the summer to transcribe recordings of student teachers talking about their experiences. Or comparing whether students should practice for 10 weeks or 30 weeks before getting certified to teach. Not that these questions are not important. They are. But so also is social commentary about how culture and politics interact and interrelate to schools and schooling. It’s just that nobody throws any money at that one. 

In one of this week’s USA Today’s Life sections, there was a feature story about a woman from Minnesota who works in a nursing home, lives with her mother, and has just signed a 2 million dollar contract with St. Martin’s Press for her e-books. I’m just recalling general details here, but I do recall that she primarily writes about trolls. I believe she also wrote a vampire novel. She has sold her e-books for an average of 99 cents each, and has made a couple of million in sales. That means, yes I paused to think about it, that two million people bought an e-book about trolls. 

This woman has a web site and blogs about what she’s writing, and has her e-books for sale there. Her sales have been so significant, that she began attracting the attention of publishers–publishers who had sent her rejection letters over the last few years. It is really, really hard to get a book published in the conventional way. Now, though, the companies are competing for her work. Although, their opinion of its quality is still about the same. One representative from St. Martin’s said that although they were thrilled to print and promote her troll work, they believed she could benefit from some MFA classes with the Iowa Writing Project. 

The following is from a conversation between me and a friend of mine when I was telling her about this story: 
Me: She writes about trolls. This is a very niche market to a very limited group of people. People who like to read about trolls. These people are looking for her and her work. Nobody is looking for me. 
My friend: Let’s keep in mind the fact that you haven’t actually written anything…

I have watched Hoda and Kathie Lee all week, and all week they have had a series called “New Year, New You.” Day after day, experts talk about setting and achieving goals. Mainly they suggest you identify your goal and name it, the idea being if you can name it you can do it. This is different from making a new year’s resolution. A resolution made in early January is little more than a public acknowledgement of something you are in need of improving. It’s like what Mary Poppins calls a “pie crust promise: easily made, easily broken.” Goals like I–and Hoda and Kathie Lee’s experts are talking about–are different. They involve more than taking off 20 pounds or adding fiber to your diet. And, it’s ok if you backslide on them, they are still there, and do-able, and you know your life will be better in big ways if you just work toward them. 

I’ve been a poor professor for seven years. I have taught 20 different classes, volunteered for committees, been to countless meetings, wrote a book, and got tenure. I will have lived half a century in a couple of years. And after 30 or so years, I have figured out what I want to do. I want to make my living “by the pen,” as Anne Hathaway said as her best British accent in Becoming Jane. And while I may never earn a dime, there are many, many meanings to “making a living.” And I will most likely never write about trolls.
More on this later.

Liking Tim Tebow

I remember when Tim Tebow played for Urban Meyer at UF. As Tide fans, my family and I spent hours of quality time discussing the overratedness of the young quarterback. We speculated at how much of the hype was brought about by Coach Meyer’s public affection and admiration for him. Watching Tebow and the Gators throughout the season, we were sure that he was pretty much all Florida had offensively. Devoted Bama fans, we were also sure that Coach Nick Saban drew that same conclusion and would therefore shut Tebow down and win the 2009 SEC championship game. Which was exactly what happened. Tim Tebow had seemed to be the Florida offensive strategy. My family fairly scoffed at the site of him sobbing after the game. We had been right all along. 

And then came Denver. I don’t follow pro football like I do SEC college football, so I only understand the basics, which I am interpreting loosely. Tebow was drafted by the Broncos, but did not make starting QB. After a 1-4 start to the season, though, Denver’s coach decided to give him a try. And they began winning. Even then, Bronco’s vice president and living legend in Denver, former QB John Elway said that Tebow wasn’t going anywhere in the position, that basically he wasn’t the fit the Broncos were looking for. In the meantime, Denver’s record went from 1-4 to 8-8, with a shot at the playoffs. 

Taken together, it would seem like the Tide, my family, and I would be satisfied that Tebow had gotten what he deserved. But we aren’t; because that just paints part of the picture of Tim Tebow. I guess one of the reasons we scoffed at his hype and his coach’s regard for him was his religious expression. Rather, his public religious expression. He talked about Christ at press conferences; he told about his mission work with his family. And on the field, he did what is now referred to in reverence and derision–depending on who is doing the referring–as “tebowing,” kneeling down to pray after plays and games, etc. I have to be honest, I didn’t think too much of that when he was playing against Alabama. 

But, again, then came Denver. Keeping in mind that my family are staunch Christians, I guess, as my mother would say, the continued talk about him got noticeable. The smugness we had felt at Tim getting his bell rung by the Alabama defense faded as one commentator after another, not to mention comedians, Tweets, and talk show talkers would find ways to work Tebow’s faith into discussions of his football playing ability. And most of them were not giving him much respect for either. And then last week Bill Maher–with whom I usually fall on the same side of the fence–made just a crude, un-funny remark about Tebow and Jesus. He worked in Satan and Hitler, too. More crude and even less funny.  Bill reminds me of that guy you sat across from in homeroom who mocked everybody, making you afraid to say or do anything that would attract his attention lest you were next. 

Lots of guys (and gals) play sports and are religious. Thanking Jesus and Mama after the game, dropping to one’s knees after a touchdown, and joining the other team for prayer in the endzone are all commonplace. Likewise, guys (and gals) who played Heisman caliber college sports in college who find the pros a little more challenging. That, though, is fair game. Over Thanksgiving my son, who thinks sports news is the actual news, watched two commentators named Mike argue for an hour over whether Tebow should be an NFL quarterback. But the undercurrent of religion was there. It, not his propensity to avoid the forward pass, is the source of the mockery in their voices. And that is out of bounds. 

Talking about Tebow is never uncomplicated–and no, apparently it is not an option to not talk about Tebow. He won games for Denver but lost the last three in a row. He prays and wins; he prays and loses. He is both praised and criticized for both running and passing. I have a friend, for example, who sees him as a total hypocrite. “All that ‘tebowing,’ and I bet he gets laid a whole lot. I don’t know. But, would those two be mutually exclusive? Is celibacy also a requirement? Would that help his passing game? During yesterday’s bowl game marathon, I saw his “I ‘preciate that” commercial and I thought it was a pretty healthy response. Here’s the link.

So that’s my Tebow rambling. I know undoubtedly it’s connectable to larger thinking, but I don’t want to expend the thinking right now to sort out exactly what. 
More on this later. 

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