Friday, May 29, 2009

Coming Into my Prime

Today is my birthday, folks.

Here's the "before" picture:

As for the "after" picture, well, the party's tomorrow night, and there will be beer. That's all I'm going to say about that.

And in honour of the anniversary of my birth, a poem.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Dylan Thomas

Thursday, May 28, 2009

This is what a feminist thinks like.

The other day in English class we were talking about the movie (and the book) Twilight. The students know that I don't like the books, and we've talked about that kind of thing before. (I used it as an example for critical thinking about literature: it's okay to say you hate Twilight. It's not okay to say "because it's stupid" and think you're done. You have to give thoughtful reasons to back up your opinion.)

This time it was a little different: "Who would you pick," a girl asked me, "a werewolf or a vampire?"

"Neither!" said I. She looked a little shocked.

"Come on," she said, "Choose! Edward or Jacob!"

Now one reason why I don't like Twilight is because of the attitudes of the main character, Bella. She is a girl who cannot live without a boy (in this case Edward, the vampire). She doesn't think she's all that special, so she's very flattered by his attention. Before long he is watching her at night without her knowledge. She ends her relationships with her friends to be closer to him. In the second book she gives up her college fund because if there is no Edward in her life she doesn't see the point of continuing on with school. That's when she falls in with Jacob (he would be the werewolf), because she cannot live without the attentions of a man in her life, and Jacob is that man.

She has to choose. Werewolf or vampire.

To me this is not choice.

I have known women who have lived like this. They give up everything for their boyfriends; some of them drop out of university the minute they get their Mrs. degree. Some of them never get to university; some of them take dead-end jobs so that they can support the guy while he goes to school. They are so focused on making sure that they are in a relationship at all times, that they forget about their relationship with themselves, and with their future.

Then what happens is the relationship ends. He walks out, or she does, or something bad ends things for them, and she winds up working the night shift in the 7-Eleven while her kids sleep so that she can earn enough money to pay for the crappy basement apartment they're living in until she can find a new man.

Which she inevitably does. Werewolf or vampire. Same difference.

Sometimes that second choice works out: she now has a new man and can devote her entire being to him. She feels complete. Sometimes it doesn't work out, and she does the whole thing again.

"Which would you choose?" ask my students, their brilliant young minds, their untold potential, their glittering futures. "Werewolf or vampire?"

And I say: I choose neither. I choose to get a lot of education, because no one can take that away from you. I choose a career that is fulfilling and pays enough for me to support my own children. I choose to be whole in and of myself. I choose to not feel like I'm incomplete without a man in my life, I choose to live like a fully realized human being, regardless of what society thinks people of my gender should do.

I choose myself, and I choose (for lack of a more elegant phrase) to have a choice: I will decide how my life unfolds. I will not allow anyone to tell me who my friends are or what my future holds, or to destroy my life because he leaves.

And it scared the shit out of me to see my students look in disbelief and say "But you have to choose! Werewolf or vampire!"

What will become of us, if these are our choices?

Monday, May 25, 2009

In the beginning was the word...

Language fills me with joy. There's nothing I won't say, or write, or talk about. As an English language teacher, I actually feel that it's really important to talk to kids about all the words in English, whether we consider those words to be good or bad, so they know that "shit for brains" is not a good thing to call your boss. (I have a couple of stories about when I was learning French, and kind people took the time to explain that what I thought was a gentle tease was in fact quite offensive - I'm glad they did and I think of myself as returning the favour.)

We have even had something similar to this conversation, about all the various permutations of that most unsayable of words.

I just started reading Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels among threatened languages, which is enlightening in the extreme. I am privileged to be a native speaker of the world's most prevalent and powerful language, and nothing makes me appreciate that more than reading about places where language - the one thing that makes us truly human by connecting us to our past and our culture, who we are at the deepest level - is disappearing.

Here's one of the things Abley says that has really made me think:

"Yabbering" and "jabbering" are interesting words. They show up all over the English-speaking world whenever a speaker feels like sneering at animals or a minority people. Look up "jabber" in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you'll find quotations in which the term applies to monkeys, Flemish servants, seabirds, and Jews. It often betrays contempt, the dictionary observes, for "the speaking of a language which is unintelligible to the hearer."

My ESL students talk among themselves in their own languages all the time. I want them to speak English in class, but I have explicitly told them (and their parents as well, through interpreters if necessary) that speaking one's native language at home, as much as possible, is absolutely crucial. Your first language is your foundation, I say, and if your mother tongue corrodes then you can't build anything strong on that foundation.

I've sometimes thought of that Babel of languages in my classroom as jabber, but never, I hope, in a derogatory way. Reading this book, however, is making me think about all the ways in which we use language as a tool for power. As the teacher, I already have a lot of power. Taking away a student's expression, by calling it by the same word as we would historically use for an animal or someone who is below us in every way, is a terrible thing to do. I don't want to become one of those crazy politically correct people who discuss "person holes" rather than "manholes" and other linguistic monstrosities, but if language is our greatest tool and our most fearsome weapon, then we need to treat it with respect.

So at the end of the day, I don't think I'll be saying "jabber" again really soon. (Unless I should encounter a Flemish servant in my daily life; then, of course, we'll have to see.)

PS. This is another fun video, on the joys of swearing, which I heartily endorse. Cause it's British and Brits make me laugh.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Let Down.

So I picked my boy up from his Camping Adventure, and the first thing he said was "Can gramma come over tonight?"

I am chopped liver, oh yes I am.

In other news, I found myself asking the dog what she was doing, and waiting for an answer.

This is what my life has become.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What I Have Been Up To, In Pictures

1. Got my sump pumped (which sounds dirty but isn't) by two lovely plumber guys named Marty and Eric, who are neighbours of my boy's babysitter's parents (I love small towns). I am now officially high and dry, for about half of what I figured it would cost me.

2. Was offered (and accepted, immediately, with something approaching glee) a permanent contract at the school where I am now, teaching more or less the same stuff, for as long as I care to continue.

There's no picture of that, but damn am I pleased.

3. Broke the knitting curse and completed most of the back of the Central Park Hoodie. I love cables, with all my teeny tiny heart. (Please note the flawless ribbing.)

It's bluer than that - the yarn (because I know you're dying to know) is Debbie Bliss Donegal Tweed. In blue.

I love cables (did I already say that?)

The best part of this sweater (besides the yarn and the colour, which I love) is the cables.

4. When I wasn't knitting or being a teaching all-star, I organized the office. Remember the before picture?

This is what it looks like "after":

Obviously, I still need a few things. Like a desk. I also need to hang up my degrees - that's them in the corner. You know, so I know that I really know what I know I know. You know?

I think I need more books, too. I'm sure I could fit more in there.

5. My boy is gone camping this weekend with friends, and I am beside myself with missing him. (I've also realized that I talk to my dog a lot.) But when I'm not missing him I'm doing lovely things like listening to music and making lunch that is not grilled cheese, and not laughing at knock-knock jokes, and taking walks wherein no one says "my legs are so tired, we have to go home right now- and can I ride my bike when we get there?" It's nice.

I also went and got me some flowers for the front porch (that's lavender, baby):

... and some for the back porch too (herbs - and flowers. I am a fool for pansies):

6. Read several good books but didn't write anything about them. I'm good, but I'm not that good.

7. That's about all I can tell you - but wait till you see what I have planned for next week. (I live a very exciting life. Just ask my dog.)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Grumpy + Anxious

It's Mother's Day Eve, that most delightful night of the year, and I am in a bad mood.

Turns out I have a sump pit in my basement, but no pump. Said pit is almost full of water, and, as I may have said, I have no pump. This is a bit of a puzzle. I have the sneaking suspicion that it may also turn out to be a bit of an expensive puzzle. Not, however, as expensive a puzzle as a flooded basement would be.

I am currently reading three books, none of which is terribly diverting. I can't get into any of them and it's irritating me.

I started knitting a new project last night. First, I cast on the wrong number of stitches. Then I cast on the wrong number AGAIN. Then I screwed up the ribbing - ribbing! I ask you! - and ended up pulling the whole thing apart.

I have taken it into my head to learn a bit of Arabic, mostly so I can say things to my students like "Dude. That is a fire alarm. Do not pull it." (Don't laugh. It happened last week. On a rainy day, at lunch, of course. On the plus side, I got to see the cute firefighters come racing to the rescue.) I have decided to learn another language because I am just not busy enough.

I have more marking to do.

One of my students said to me "my mom says you're not a very good French teacher because we're doing this assignment in English." I have the urge to find out what that mother does for a living and criticize her. "You know, you're just not a very good cashier. How hard can it be?" The fact remains that doing the assignment in English means they'll actually learn something about French culture (which is a curriculum objective), and that their French is so limited they would not get anything out of it otherwise.

I am worrying about what that mother thinks of me.

If only there were a sump pump for one's brain. All those awful anxious unhappy thoughts could just get sucked up and poured out your ear, leaving your mind free and clear for the important things. Like how to say "Dude, don't pull the fire alarm" in Arabic.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Knitting Knightmare

People knit for a variety of reasons. My reasons include the traditional pleasure in making something, but I also knit because otherwise I live entirely in my head, and doing something with my hands means I can get out of that space a little bit. I've also had lots of trouble over the years with anxiety, and knitting relaxes me in ways nothing else ever has - not yoga, not meditation, not that weird therapist who didn't take any record of our meetings and could clearly not remember me from week to week, and certainly not the antidepressants.

Of course, that's when everything is going well.

Last night I was zipping along the last sleeve of Elsewhere, minding my own business, being all Zen and at one with the world, and thinking how lucky I was to have bought enough wool - 8 skeins at 138 yards a skein (that's 1104 yards for those of us who cannot (or will not) carry the one) - to finish this pattern that called for 950 yards of this exact same yarn with a bit to spare.

Then, with six inches of the last sleeve to go, I ran out of yarn.

Let me just say that again, I ran out of yarn.

I probably could have avoided the panic by just buying more, but a) I wasn't sure the store still had this colour; ii) the store is a long ways from here and I don't have much time these days; and 3) I am not spending another penny if I don't have to. (I was feeling stubborn yesterday. Well, more stubborn than usual, anyway. It's relative.)

I unravelled my gauge swatches and knit with them, and dear reader, I just made it. Just. By the proverbial skin of my teeth. This is how much is left (the dog is for scale):

"Dude. Don't you think you cut it a little fine there?"

The bad part is that the right cuff is two rows shorter than the left, but I choose to consider that a style quirk rather than a design flaw. Magical thinking, that's us.

It's not that obvious, is it? I mean, here the sleeves are side by side. Usually I wear my sleeves on opposite sides of my body. Also I wave my hands around a lot when I talk.

So now the darling thing is finished, and I love it dearly, even though I got myself all in a tizzy and couldn't even see straight last night over the possible lack of yarn to finish the last half inch. (I said to myself, is it the end of the world if you have to wait a few days to get new yarn to finish this? to which myself said a resounding YES, actually. Yes it IS the end of the world.)

But I am happy with this:

And, just as importantly, so is the Wonder Dog.

So that's okay then.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Helloooooooo, Dystopia!

There are two themes I’ve been noticing as I read my way through the genre of young adult fiction. The first is the time travel theme – young person, whisked backwards through the space-time continuum to find him- or her-self in a familiar(ish) place some time in the past. The problem is to find one’s way home and avoid being burned at the stake/decapitated in some gruesome way/violating the prime directive.

I like those books, even as I suspect that their intent is more didactic than entertaining. What better way, after all, to learn about the middle ages than by sending back a fictional character to liven up all that dry old history by way of the personal narrative? I imagine that even Canadian history could be made interesting by a method like that. (I’ve always wondered how a writer could work the opposite story – girl in middle ages moves forward through time – and make it compelling and real. I’m not sure it can be done.)

The other theme I’ve noticed lately is the dystopia. Young person, either way far in the future or only a little bit, living in a restrictive society. Fahrenheit 451, although not really a YA novel, qualifies. So does 1984. Young person in future restrictive society must rely on smarts to overthrow the status quo and return Freedom to the Masses.

I can see the appeal. Kids, after all, have almost no agency. They even have to ask to go to the bathroom in school, and sometimes (often if the teacher is me and it’s reading day and you’ve just had a break) the teacher says no. They have no money, no freedom, no ability to choose for themselves what they will do and when they will do it. If they do choose for themselves (by skipping school, for example) there are frequently some nasty consequences. As they get older, teenagers do start to get more power for themselves, but I think they still often feel trapped. (I remember having a shouting argument with my father in the kitchen over being allowed to go somewhere with my friends, in which I screamed “I’m fifteen years old!” and he screamed back “That’s my point!”)

Which brings me to the latest book (sorry, I have totally lost count of what number this is), Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine – any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas hinge for a door – using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.

A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of microminiaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.

Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city.

Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off-limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give nonprogrammers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work – if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.

We wrote a lot of code that night.

They story’s about this dystopian kid, Marcus, who is out skipping school with some friends in San Francisco one afternoon to play a game (one of those real ones where you run around the city finding clues given via website – sounds like fun). While Marcus and his friends are out, San Francisco is attacked by terrorists. The kids are loaded up in white vans, held and interrogated for days by officers of the Department of Homeland Security. When Marcus is released, he realizes a few things. He knows that he is being watched, and that he needs to work in completely secret ways in order to keep the DHS from eroding still more freedoms, and from taking him back into custody, which will probably mean his death.

It’s a really American book, the kind that says “ripped from the headlines”. It’s a credit to Doctorow’s writing that the “Let Freedom Ring” business doesn’t sound preachy, and that the technical stuff (while still mostly Greek to me) didn’t get in the way of the story.

Speaking of the story, I have to confess. Sometimes, when I’m a little bored with a book (what? It happens) I flip forward and read bits towards the end.

I didn’t do this even once with this book. I was dying to know what was going to happen to Marcus, but I didn’t look forward to find out. Can there be a better recommendation? Oh, that and that it has made me want to write code for my computer – this from a thirty-odd knitting small town mother and English teacher who failed remedial math twice.

That’s what good books do. They take you to a place where you can imagine doing something that you know, for absolute certain, that you would hate and have no aptitude for and that would make you want to chew your own head off out of sheer frustration. But the guy writing the book has been so convincing that you finish reading, then you go boot up your MacBook so you can check out some of the links in the afterword, and you think… I could totally write code, man.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday was an important day.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of my becoming a real live teacher. One year ago, on April 30, 2008, I walked in to a school in the northeast as a substitute teacher.

Four hours later I walked out in tears.

It. Was. Awful.

The teacher had left a movie for the kids to watch, but they didn't like it. When my back was turned, the little creeps took the teacher's movie out and put their own in. When I put the original film back in the player, they unplugged the projector and started throwing things at each other.

Meanwhile, three of them had got hold of the teacher's chair (with my jacket on the back) and were racing it up and down the hallway outside of class, one as passenger clinging on for dear life, and two pushing.

Now, I don't have too many illusions about subbing: it's hard work. Teaching, at its core, is about relationships, and when you just walk into a place for a day you can't form any kind of relationship with 30 kids for an hour or so at a time. It takes a hell of a lot more time than that to get things to a point where you know and trust one another. But still.

I left after school, got into my car, and called my friend C. "It was horrible!" I said. I was laughing to keep from sobbing. "What have I done? I can't be a teacher if it's like this!"

You will be glad to know that things have improved.

I love this job. It's harder than any other work I've ever done - I put in two fourteen-hour days this week alone, not counting my marking - but it is so rewarding. You can't fake your way through it; you have to be real all the time. Everything you give comes back to you, though, especially that amazing moment when your students finally really get what you're teaching. It's magic.

One of my ESL students asked me how much education I have. When I told him, he looked very impressed. "Wow," he said, "are you doing to do something real with all that?"

"Teaching is real!" I protested.

"Well, okay," says he, "but you don't make very much money, do you?"

Never mind the money. I make a difference. I've made a difference for a year now, and it's been real every single day.