Thursday, December 31, 2009

Literature is Life (and my resolution to write about it)

It’s the New Year—time, perhaps, to speak in clichés. To make resolutions.

Mine this year is to write down—finally—what I have learned from my students.  I think it may be more than they have learned from me.

I teach literature—novels and stories and plays. I also teach writing, where we tell our own stories.  What’s more, I teach talking.  I am pretty quiet in my personal life, but in class, I tell many stories of my own.  Sometimes I think I shouldn’t do this, and yet, I do it because I remember that I learned the most from the professors who told me tales.  Not tall tales, true tales. Informative anecdotes.  

I believe that many of the stories we tell each other are where we truly learn more about not only how to use words to describe what we’ve seen and what we’ve felt, but also where we learn more about life and what it means to be human.

I learned from a college philosophy professor how Alan Watts (I was and still am very impressed with Alan Watts' work) never had money for dental care, and his family’s teeth were, reportedly, a “mess.” What did this teach me?  Well, I suppose it taught me that no matter how successful one may appear (Watts published many books), personal struggle is still very possible (and don’t take your teeth for granted). 

A religion professor told me about his quest to plant every horse chestnut he found.  At one point, he had a college campus full of saplings that were then mowed down by weed-whacking landscapers who obviously didn’t see the importance of his project. The importance was only, apparently, in the joy-making capacity of horse chestnuts. We all love to pick those things up, caress them in our pockets, chuck them across ponds. Plus, the blossoms of these trees smell pretty nice in spring...

In other classes I learned about how spatulas are very useful, sometimes, for cleaning babies’ bottoms (no, I never tried this one). The lesson? That practicality should probably, as in this case, trump the gross-out factor. Sometimes the best ideas just sound too distasteful and so are ignored…

From my students I have learned (I will write more later about this. I think I might write a book) many things: among them, I heard about parents being told their child is about to die (thankfully, she did not);  I have seen the ordeal of chemo through the eyes of  a three-year-old who grew to be 17, who is still growing now; I have learned about dreams of stardom and private lives full of late-night teenaged creative writing. I have seen the strength that comes from living with diabetes. I have witnessed kids trying to be heard in the midst of large, boisterous families; I have felt (vicariously) what it’s like to the poor kid in a rich girls’ school. I have seen the effect of praise from one particular teacher (let’s say it was me. It was me), and how a well-placed sentence can quite literally change a life.

When break is over, school resumes—for my students and for me, the Perpetual Student. As usual, I can’t wait.

Literature is life.  Life is literature (chiasmus—oh joy! No, seriously; I’m a nerd like that).

More stories to come later.

Happy New Year! Let's hope this one is better than the last...and that the wars finally end.

 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Snow Days

1. My little one told me today that not only are the kids at her school often not even allowed to go outside if there's snow (I think really it's the lunchroom aides and playground refs who don't want to go out), they are specifically told, "Don't touch the snow!" or "Don't you dare go near that snow. Get away from the snow!" and "The snow will burn you."

"How will snow burn me?" she asked. 
"It's the salt in the snow, I guess," I told her. 
"But salt doesn't burn..." 
"It's not really salt. It's chemicals and salt. I think." (Note to self: look that up. I hate not knowing what I am talking about!)

Pollution of the snow not withstanding, I remember the greatest days of elementary school were after it had snowed, when the municipal plows had piled up a mountain of snow at the edge of the playground.  That was so much fun--climbing on the snow, sliding down it, building snow forts.

What a shame that kids aren't even allowed to touch the snow in the school playground now...

2.  My husband used the ridiculously large snowblower he has (given to him by his brother, which was given to brother by his father...these men are obsessed with pricey tool-toys) to unearth the entire neighborhood. Well, almost. He forgot the single mom down the street and had packed away the gigantic snowblower when I realized her driveway was still a mess. I feel bad about that. Next time, she is first on the list, and my guilt-tripping of the snowblowing man did nothing...

But, for the most part, the clearing of snow generated a heap of Goodwill. Other neighbors chipped all the ice off my car. The across the street father-of-a-celebrity gave us an autographed photo of his daughter. Still other neighbors brought cookies.

"Using the snowblower is fun," said husband.  Fun?  Well--if it's fun for him, then everyone's happy, I suppose.

3.  A few days to myself mean I am now thisclose to finishing my final (fourth) revision of my YA novel, PRETTY FREAKY.  Yes, I am nearly done!  Just some cut and paste puzzle pieces to fit together today, plus a review of the end, and a re-printing and re-saving.  Then it's off to the literary agent I sincerely hope remembers me...and please say prayers that I can sell this book.

It's a good book (well, it's not a book yet)--honest!

Part of my slowness--which was due to many things, among them: work craziness, my workaholism when it comes to schoolwork and class prep, plus the massive leg injury I have been recovering from since last year--may be attributed to praise I had. 

That sounds counter-intuitive, but let me explain. 

"You are writing what could very well be an award-winning book," I was told. "So it has to be perfect."

I think I gulped.  

I certainly had no intention of writing a stinky book, a stupid book, or even a mediocre book, but potentially award-winning? It was almost too much pressure.

My heart is pounding right now. But I think that's adrenaline because I am NEARLY DONE!

Let me now wish a very merry Christmas to all--and a relaxing winter break!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Rate of Autism Keeps Rising. Why, Why, Why?

The last time I checked, the rate of autism was a staggering one in 169. That was four years ago. 

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I don't recall ever hearing about autism, or knowing anyone who was autistic.  Clearly, the rate of autism back then was much less severe.

Copy and paste to read autism statistics tables: http://www.autismfacts.com/services.php?page_id=137

But today, I read in Science Daily (December 18, 2009 article, "Rate of Autism Disorders Climbs to One Percent Among 8 Year Olds") that the autism rate has inexplicably increased to one in 110. 

This shouldn't surprise me. When I curl up with current issues  of my college alumni magazine, I am nearly always saddened to read about a classmate's struggle to find help for her or his severely autistic child. 

It seems that I know far too many people whose families have been slapped by autism, driven into debt, marriages strained, other children ignored because of the endless need to try to rehabilitate a child with autism. Shockingly, there are also many parents who have multiple children with autism. I can't even imagine how hard that is.

Several of my colleagues now have grown children about my age whose own babies have been diagnosed with autism. A good number of my friends have autistic children, too.

Autism feels like an absolute epidemic, and it frightens me. What is in the water, in the air, in our bodies, that is making this developmental (brain) disorder so pervasive? Is there hope? 

I am glad to see articles in various sources touting newfound "cures" for some diagnosed children, but what will stop the rate of autism from climbing even higher? Will it, like so many other things, have to get worse before it gets better?

I am, let me say now, not trying to argue that an autistic child's life is without worth. I have read Temple Grandin's books, and I was impressed.  I assign Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" to my high school literature classes every year. I also think I know some very smart adults who, while not overtly diagnosed, strike me as being somewhere on the spectrum.  

Perhaps autism has always been with us. Perhaps autism makes the world go 'round. Perhaps we are now just much more conscious of any differences in brain processing.  Maybe it's not really as bad as--some days--I think.  Still, statisticians tell us that the rate of autism is, in fact, increasing.

This is scary.

I think of the tremendous effort it must take to try to do everything one can to help an autistic child. It is a concept that nearly overwhelms me. Children without development disorders are already challenging. How does a parent cope with a child who may not be able to respond, who can't see how to make sense of much of the world?

I understand that autistic children themselves may not realize there is anything "wrong" with their perceptions or thought-processes. And an autistic child can certainly be a productive member of society--perhaps brilliant in unexpected ways that enhance others' lives.  

Still, knowing what is missing from an autistic child's life makes me sad for him or her. Mostly, though, I am sad for parents and grandparents who must often feel helpless in the face of the stony silence or screams or just plain everything-much-harder-than-usual caused by autism.

I am also perturbed by the fact that the causes of autism haven't been pinpointed yet. Mercury in vaccines has been widely discounted by the CDC and certain scientists (though some believe it is the problem, and I can certainly see their point). Diet cures and other health treatments have been both promoted and criticized. Intensive--and, I am sure, very expensive--therapy seems to be the only thing upon which the warring factions will agree.

Maybe this is because going for therapy means one doesn't have time to point fingers at polluters or the possible problem of government-mandated vaccines or widespread viruses. Maybe everyone saves face if we just keep saying, "We don't know what causes autism, and it almost doesn't matter. Let's just work on reversing it with early treatment."

But I wonder: wouldn't we as a nation save much of our healthcare money if we could stop the cause of autism? Aren't we always told that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

I think we owe it to ourselves and to our children to figure out now what causes autism and fight to make sure that more children aren't afflicted.

I'd really like to stop reading about the rate of autism climbing.  It has climbed far enough.




Monday, December 14, 2009

Reading: It's The Solution to Basically Everything

I think I have two or three students a year who might be described as "readers." By this I mean kids who must have a book, who immerse themselves in stories, who love to talk about literature, who get a rush from reading.

I myself was that way. I still am.

I became a reader largely because I was an only child, and I had to read to entertain myself. I remember being desperate to read and I actually learned on my own. My mother was a reading specialist, but she was deep into the 1970s pedagogy exemplified by phonics workbooks--which I hated and eschewed in favor of the real thing.

I never understood the point of phonics. Why mumble letter sounds if you can actually form a word with letters? Why purse your lips and exhale forcefully over and over again when you can just look at the letters and see their meaning? Let's cut to the chase, I thought then (and still think); workbooks are boring!

No wonder so many students never got into reading--if schools are spending those first formative years making students endlessly repeat, "Buh-buh-buh...bee."

I talked to my mother about her annoying phonics books. "Why did you do that to me?" I asked her. "I hated those books."

She admitted that it took her a while to realize phonics was a waste of time for some kids--including her own. "You just broke the code," she explained. "You didn't need that step. You were way past it."

I wasn't even sure what my mother meant by code-breaking, but it sounds impressive, doesn't it? The only "code" I knew I needed to break was the wonder of books themselves. How could I be a part of that? I just wanted to be in a story, and to know everything I could.

As a kid, I read everything--cereal boxes, medication bottles, joint replacement textbooks, both books of the Bible and all of Grimm's fairy tales. The result? I became a walking fountain of trivia (mostly because I remember what I read; it's just how my brain works). I also became more interested in the world around me.

When I was five, I used to be into Switzerland, reading all about it, from Heidi to cheesemaking to the old tuberculosis sanitariums. Later, I was fascinated by cardiology. I know a little bit about many different things. This is useful, and it allows me to be able to carry on a conversation with anyone about almost anything.

Now studies are showing that students who read widely, who've always like to read, have a distinct advantage on the verbal sections of standardized tests. This has recently been published as "news."

Are you kidding me? Did we need scientific studies to realize this? Shouldn't it just make sense?
I would think it would logically follow that the more you read, the more you know.

When I was in school, I had, typically, about 50 books recommended to read each summer. I read as many as I could. We all did, at my school (Kent Place in Summit, NJ). We were all readers.

I enjoyed reading most of those books, but I didn't realize back then what an advantage it was for me to have reading as such an integral, expected part of my day.

Many kids now haven't had that, and it's hard to suddenly re-adjust (though, thankfully, there are programs such as Reading Olympics, which help).

Students are now coming up to me, frantic. "I'm not much of a reader. Can I catch up?"

Can they? It certainly won't hurt to try.

"Books are your friends," I tell my students. "There's nothing better than reading." I am serious; I urge them to just try it. (Formulating lists of books for reluctant readers feels like a part-time job, sometimes. )

But it's worth it when kids come up to me later, glowing after a particularly satisfying read. "That was really good!" they tell me, slightly breathless. "Can you tell me about another book like that?"

Of course I can, and I will.

I hope more teachers will do the same.

It is, after all, through reading that we also learn how to write. A person who has read widely just naturally absorbs--as if through osmosis--the rules of good writing.

There is no need to ever diagram a sentence (a timeworn practice that seems to turn kids away from words, not towards them) if you're a reader. Readers just know what the proper use of language looks like and how it sounds--at least subvocalized. Reading is also the key to success in virtually every other subject in school.

If we want our kids to be effective communicators and strong writers, that all starts with reading.

What is the last book you read?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Joyeux Noel!



My 2009 Christmas card...for paperless greetings.

Feel free to share with your friends and family.

Happy Holidays,

Elizabeth Collins

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Take One For the Team

I am a big believer in taking one for the team.

We all have teams.

There are teams of people who agree with us politically, teams of people who graduated in the same class, teams of vegetarians. Whatever.

If something happens that you aren't quite sure you're okay with--no matter what it is, from needing to eat a Crab Rangoon (which you find unhealthful because it is fried and fatty) so as not to be rude to your mother-in-law, or voting for a bill or a candidate you are not 100% in line with, but to vote against it would mean that the "bad side" wins-- YOU DO IT ANYWAY so as not to be a Ruiner of the Moment. 

In other words: you take one for the team.

With everyone seemingly out to protect their own interests, I think it is more important than ever to protect common, wider, goals.  After all, we're always taught, "It's not all about you,"--aren't we? 

It's not about you most of the time. It's about humanity, or at least a whole bunch more people than you.

So, whether the goal is to get your academic department more respect in your school, or if it is to pass a national healthcare reform bill that could save people money and save people's lives, then YOU DO IT, no matter if there are a few niggling details that don't sit perfectly well with you.

Think what could be lost if you stand in the way of progress--even if "progress" just means the flow of polite conversation at an awkward holiday dinner table.

Don't be an obstructionist. Don't tolerate obstructionism in others.  (I am speaking specifically to you, the three Democrats Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but who have been threatening not to vote for healthcare reform in the Senate...why, I have no idea.)

People don't really remember how positive change got underway, but they certainly remember who was being a pill about it, who kept throwing grenades into the middle of what otherwise might have been productive discussions.

So, as Thanksgiving approaches (my least favorite holiday, for reasons I won't get into, but suffice it to say that I am generally thankful, so that's not it), I will remember to grin and bear it. 

I will smile and pour wine and cook for hours upon hours, even though people will decimate my dinner table in approximately 20 minutes.

I will take one for the team.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention...and other pithy quotes that could change the world

Many people have seen a particular bumper sticker which reads, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

Remember? You were on the highway, behind a rattly Subaru emblazoned with college stickers, "Buy Organic!" admonitions and maybe a black Lab (sporting an elaborate macrame collar) panting out the window.

Then again, clearly, many people haven't seen this sticker--or, if they did, they weren't paying attention.

Perhaps they don't really watch or read or think about the news.

I am outraged more and more lately. I truly wish I weren't.

I'd like to get back to oblivious-ness. I would like to think about literature more. I'd like to have more quiet time to write fiction. I need to get some books out. I need to focus on me.

But the world is begging for change. Good change. I don't know if I'm one to bring the change, but all I can do is try.

I feel like the kid who threw back the starfish that washed up on the beach--the one who said to the man who told him he couldn't possibly rescue all the washed-up starfish, "Well, at least I can save that one."

It's disheartening, though, to want to talk about the issues and the problems and to encounter faces stony with denial or disbelief.

How can the world change for the better if people don't even want to hear about the fact that it needs changing?

Will it be too late when other people finally start to listen?

I am thinking in bumper stickers now, in pithy forwarded e-mails.

Is this a bad sign? Or are bumper stickers or forwarded e-mails the things that other people are finally--when they're ready to notice--going to see and consider?

Are these little messages the things that could finally change America?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My Health Insurance Just Went Up $200. Dare to Argue with Me That We Don't Need a Public Option?

Every year, like most people, I get a little raise. This is nice. This is happy-making.

And every year, after a month or two to enjoy that extra bit o'money, my health insurance premiums go up, and my paycheck reverses direction.

It's depressing, but I'm used to it.

Today, I picked up my much-needed paycheck, however, and found that I now earn $200 less than I did last month because both my medical and dental insurance costs went up.

No little increase in costs this time. Try a huge leap in costs. One so big that despite all the raises, I now earn the same as I did three years ago.

I was despondent after staring at all the little numbers on the lower left-hand side of my check. Two hundred fewer dollars a month. What am I going to do?

At first I was shocked, then I was sad, and now I am filled with self-pity, which is irritating (I can't stand it in other people, but sometimes all you can do is wallow in it).

I don't understand why this is happening to me, why I have to struggle with seemingly less money (or the same money) every year. I work SO HARD. Honestly. I try to be the very best teacher I can be. I am actually very talented, kind, assiduous, devoted.

Our American meritocracy seems like a sick joke right now (pun fully intended). If there's anyone who has merit, I know that it's me, and yet...what good has it done me?

Maybe it's my own fault for choosing a lower-paying, if honorable, career. Maybe I was just born at the wrong time in history. Maybe nothing my generation experiences will ever be easy.

Health insurance premiums, among other issues--especially the rising costs of literally everything--could render us helpless and utterly insecure, financially. I know I will hardly be able to save for retirement, and God knows there won't be pensions for any of us to depend on.

Maybe none of my generation's kids will even be able to attend college, because seriously, how are we ever going to afford those tuition bills? Or. more realistically, how will our kids ever be able to repay them?

Economic horror faces us right now, so scary that I don't even want to think about it. Yet, there is one thing I know that can be done to make it better: we can try to stem the ever-rising costs of health insurance by reforming the healthcare system now.

Adding a public option will force private insurers to lower their rates to stay competitive. Getting the uninsured able to afford some coverage will lower medical costs for all of us. (Maybe then hospitals will stop charging $300 per tablet of Tylenol, just to make up for the fact that some people have no insurance!)

I hope that people who were on the fence about healthcare reform will now start to see how important it is. Even if you personally don't want or need it, there are many Americans who do. And reform is something we need to have in order to ease the financial pinch on younger workers.

So, please--even if you don't see the need for change in your own healthcare, please don't stand in the way of positive national change. I know that we each do the best we can, but I have trouble seeing how yelling, scowling, and finger-pointing (and just generally acting like viragos at town hall meetings) is the best we can do. This type of behavior also makes foreigners laugh at us...

Please think of the future generations. Think of people who don't have health insurance--through simple bad luck, lack of money, no fault of their own. Our profit-driven system is broken and it's failing us, bankrupting us. If we don't reform our fractured, cruel system, more people will suffer and die--probably penniless. How can that be good for America?

Also consider this: how can something that is really for the public benefit--health insurance--be privately run and profit-driven? It can't. The private system only works by denying care and constantly raising premiums. Insurers aren't in the business of selling us health care because they want to help us live longer; they want to help themselves make money. Remember that.

Healthcare should be about protecting health--not corporate coffers or CEO bonuses. And healthcare should be something we each have, a benefit not tied to a job that could be downsized at any moment. You don't own your healthcare the way things are now--but if we pass reforms, you certainly could!

Finally, keep in mind that most people see that healthcare needs changing, but even if you don't want to change YOUR health insurance, some people genuinely need lower-priced, budget-friendly and more secure options that will help them afford their lives and protect their families. Press for change to help the people who need it.

And if you have Medicare and like it, why not let other people have the same privilege as you currently enjoy? No one wants to take away your precious Medicare (well, some people do, and ironically, those are the people who oppose the public option! Did you know that? I am thinking of you, Mr. Boehner).

So, please, call your Congress person; urge him or her to vote for health care reform so that the people who need it will get some relief.

Until that happens, I need to find another way to make up for the newly-lost $200. I don't know how I'm going to do it. Still, I will cheer on the champions who are trying to save us...and hope that the opponents to healthcare reform will finally see the light.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yoga and Carotid Arteries and Plumbers, Oh My!


Last night, I went to my semi-regular Tuesday night vinyasa class (formerly taught by Dan the Man--a great, if predictable in his routine, yoga teacher), but it was strange. It was not vinyasa, first of all, plus the weather was terrible (cold and rainy, which made my recently-broken leg ache). Also, Leslie, the teacher (coincidentally, Dan's wife), had just been in a car accident, and she was--very understandably--shaken up. She was not hurt, but she, like her car, was a wreck.

During this long, very slow class, I felt like we were just randomly, without flow or cueing, putting ourselves into stiff asanas, and that the Sun Salutation very nearly went on forever. Certain parts were even  skipped, and it was jarring, in the way where you know a very familiar song but someone else covers it and changes it--stretching it out interminably in parts, glossing over others--and it's just hard to accept, and you don't really like it.

To make matters worse, we did the fish pose (which I've always hated, and I don't hate much in yoga), and I put my head back so far I was worried for a few minutes that I'd severed my carotid artery--which I've heard can happen in the salon, for example, if you tilt your head too far back in the hair-washing sinks. I actually had thoughts that I might pass out or die.  

Then we were lying down in preparation for savasana when all of a sudden, Leslie remembered we hadn't quite finished the Sun Salutation! So we stood up, blearily, dizzily, and put our hands over our hearts, and then we got down on the floor again. 

Like I said, it was strange.

I got home late, because class was so slow and surreal, and my children were waiting up for me (WHY CAN'T THEY PUT THEMSELVES TO BED?) and hadn't bathed, hadn't brushed teeth, etc. At this point, it was pretty late.

I fell asleep in my daughter's bed, as I often do, because I am so tired at night that I just drop right into unconsciousness after reading a story. Then I awoke, as I usually do, about three hours later, and could not get back to sleep at all!  

I am beyond tired right now, and I still can't sleep.

I should take the advice of my yoga teachers, all of whom advocate breathing in rhythmic patterns to still the mind.  Why don't I remember to do that? If ever I needed to do that, it was yesterday.

I was up all night, thinking about annoying stuff--how someone flashed some obnoxious gesture at me yesterday as I drove (no, really, I am a good driver). How I know I didn't deserve that, and I felt especially outraged because I was Innocent.  How plumbers never return my phone calls, and how annoyed that makes me. How I really need to buy more dental floss. How SEPTA (Philadelphia public transit) is threatening to strike and if they do, then my husband won't be able to get to work because his car is in the shop and so he is currently dependent on the trolleys.

About 11 years ago, I  had a yoga teacher (I actually called her the Yoga Pill, because she was really not very friendly, unlike most yoga teachers I've met) who said something that has always stuck with me.  "Put your hand on your heart," she instructed.  "Feel that? That's your life.  Everything else--all the errands you have to run, the paperwork you have to do--that is not your life. Only this (the heartbeat) is your actual life."

I should think of her advice, too, when I can't still my mind, when I worry and can't sleep.




Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Menace of Moose Heads

Who, in this reading audience, hates moose and thinks they should die, should be wiped off the face of the Earth? (Sarah Palin, put your hand down.)

Moose aren’t typically seen as evil—they’re innocently goofy-looking, slow lumbering, vegetarian beasts. They’re even mildly cute in a gangly, too-big-for-their-own-good sort of way.

Think about Bullwinkle, and a certain sweetish, inexpensive Canadian beer. Consider how a fine rack of antlers may be a prized possession, handed down for generations. Maybe even imagine gulping down a steaming bowl of Moose Chili, stirred by Sarah herself, in her Wasilla kitchen (even though I’ve read that she doesn’t really cook).

Moose are associated with many reasonably good things, aren’t they?

I’m sure that if you’ve ever hit a moose with your car or been charged by a seven-foot-tall, three thousand pound moose during rutting season then okay, you might not think too charitably about moose.

Still, moose are not the natural enemies of people, nor our first, most hated creatures. Moose are not quite like snakes or sharks or even crocodiles.

But moose (especially moose heads on walls) are my ten-year-old daughter’s primary fear.

I’ll be honest: she has a short list of phobias, but most of them have to do with taxidermy, particularly stuffed heads of moose nailed to wooden plaques, staring down with brown, glassy eyes and bulbous (if velvety) noses.

I remember speaking with a psychic when my daughter was around two. My daughter has a very unusual name, but the psychic nearly guessed it (yes, without ever being told). Then she asked about moose.

“I see moose,” the psychic said, in a dreamy, monotone voice. “Lots of moose heads.”

I had no idea what this famous psychic was talking about. It sounded bizarre, implausible, and yet, it was so odd—moose heads? Wha?—that I didn’t discount it.

I’ve heard psychics say, “You will take a trip over water,” or “I see you attending a funeral,” but predictions of moose heads? No. Still, moose, at that moment, meant next to nothing to me.

This conversation with the psychic happened a couple of months before my daughter formed her moose phobia. Then we took a trip to a family resort on a small, Minnesota island. There, on that island, to my surprise, moose were the mascots. Cute, fuzzy, cuddly moose toys were all over the place and even pinned to trees.

My daughter didn’t seem to have a problem with that—but maybe Minnesota is where she first formed her moose fears. I thought the mini-vacation went pretty well, but who knows how it felt to her?

The following year, we ate in a restaurant in Florida that had animal heads tacked on the walls. A lion, a giraffe, maybe an elephant. I don’t think they were real (though they were rather frightening to my three-year-old daughter who averted her eyes and seemed to be nervous).

In the next room was a moose head. When she saw it (on our way to the bathroom), my young daughter screamed like in the shower scene from “Psycho.”

After that, it was downhill. Moose were a menace. My daughter had nightmares about moose. She hated—still hates—to even see the silhouette of antlers on cars’ stickers. Any antlers of any kind set her to trembling.

To no avail, I described to my daughter how I once saw two baby moose in Glacier National Park, and they were soooo cute, the way they cocked their heads at me, peered at me from behind some pine trees and seemed to be sort of smiling. They were curious, innocent, adorable creatures, I explained.

“Don’t talk about moose!” shouted my daughter. “I hate them! Moose! Aggh!” My daughter nixes all talk of travel to any national park, to Canada or even Maine--all because of the possibility (however remote) of seeing moose.

Her moose phobia (although we live in Philadelphia) has even become a bit of a local problem. I have to check each and every restaurant and some hotels and other institutions for moose heads before my daughter will walk in. This gets tiresome. It seems crazy. Sometimes, I rebel.

“You know what? You are being ridiculous,” I told her. “You’re out of line. Afraid of moose heads? We’re in the city, honey. There are no moose in the city. None. What are the chances of seeing a moose head around here?” I firmly steered my child into a restaurant.

Boom. Right in front of us, a horned boar head glared from the wall. My daughter fled in fright, stifling a scream.

So you’d think I’d learn my lesson at this point: you never know where there could be a moose head, or any sort of animal head with big horns attached to it.

Wrong. You may never know where there could be taxidermy, but people’s propensity for hunting trophies—that’s utterly unpredictable and seemingly insatiable.

We tried another restaurant with my firm assurances that the chances of animal head décor had to be nil. They had to be. Right? This restaurant had nothing to do with the North Woods. Its name included the word "fish."

Try four moose heads. Four. One on each wall.

I thought we might need a sedative. Industrial strength.

“Why do people do that?!” my daughter wailed.

Why, indeed? And why haven’t I learned yet that you just never know where there’s going to be a moose head?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No Matter How Bad, It's All Material

It happens just that fast. One minute, you're saying, "Go outside and play with this crazy dog," and then you're greeting your husband as he arrives home from work. You're pushing a child on the swings. Then, you're inside, stress and achiness and exhausation driving you to hurry up and change so you can get to yoga class.

That's when you hear the bloodcurdling screams.

After the first day of school, just last week, my eldest daughter flipped off the swings in our backyard and broke both her arms.

I knew they were broken. They weren't misshapen, but I could tell from the clammy feel of her skin, her shaking and her inability to even process what just happened--beyond it hurts--that she'd fractured something in one or both arms.

I got her to stand up and I took her to the car. We drove to the emergency room.

And then we sat there for over two hours, my child in terrible pain. Still sweating, still shaking.

She was nearly unreachable in her pain, zoned out, just trying to get through it.

Same with me.

I could pat her hair, smooth it away from her forehead, but I knew that wasn't helping.

My daughter's breathing was ragged. Her gaze was glassy.

We waited. I complained. I whipped out my cell phone.

Finally, not knowing what else to do in my frustration, I reached for reading material.

The only choices in this ER were--and I do not lie--"Wild Bird" magazine and "Reform Judaism."
What the...? Who ordered these subscriptions? Seriously. Was this some sort of joke?

It was so ridiculous, I wrote it down in my ever-present notebook. And I sort of laughed.

I showed the magazines to my daughter. She smiled, just slightly, through her pain.

I wouldn't be distracted with a scintillating read. Not tonight.

But I was reminded: everything crazy or bad that happens later becomes somewhat humorous. At least sometimes.

And it's all material, right?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Readers, Who Are You? I Want to Know!

My dearest Readers,

From time to time, because it suits my tendency toward procrastination, and either assuages my curiosity or makes me feel like a loser (both oddly satisfying feelings), I check my Google analytics to see how many people are reading this blog, and where they are.

I was stunned, several months back, to find that I have Scandinavian readers (from every nation in that region)--consistent ones, regulars. Because I am part Danish, I found this especially exciting.

I also have British readers in London (I love London) and a Scot or two in Glasgow.

There was a person in South America who apparently spent quite a chunk of time digesting my blog. So, too, in Moscow. This sort of boggles my mind.

Maybe Sarah Palin was checking me out up in Alaska. Someone in Alaska was (and in Hawaii).

I have some readers in New Zealand--one of whom I think I know...thanks, Zara!

And I think I've scored readers from practically every state in the U.S., at this point. Some may be former students of mine. Some obviously just stumbled across my blog. It was probably the broken ankle photos. Those get a lot of play.

But I thank each and every one of you readers, and I encourage you--if you're so inclined--to
e-mail me and let me know how you found PRETTY FREAKY. I hope your searches were noble...

Please, tell me what you are thinking, and who you are. You can reach me best at sheepandstars@yahoo.com

I am always curious, and I do want to know you. I will also write back to you if you write to me.

I encourage you to "follow" me publicly, because I feel sort of dumb with my three announced blog followers--even though I know there are many more readers. Go ahead, follow PRETTY FREAKY. Leave your mark here. I truly appreciate the support.

You can follow me on Twitter, too @ecollins8.

Thanks for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Elizabeth

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Life Lessons Learned at the Literary Agency

**this essay is also viewable on www.thenervousbreakdown.com**


Fresh out of college in 1993, I landed a job with a literary agent. Don’t ask me how.


The job, however plummy it seemed, was actually insane. Every day was a lesson in Real Life.


The first thing I learned was: Don’t let the bike messengers use the bathroom.  They’re usually shooting up in there.

 

I got screamed at, reamed out, when I let the messenger use the bathroom. 


“Don’t you know what they do in bathrooms!?” My new co-worker was horrified.


I could imagine it, yes, because it is hot in NYC in summer, and bike messengers must drink a lot of water.


“Heroin!” she shouted. “Smack! They’re junkies!”


“What, all of them?”


“A lot of them…can’t you tell a junkie when you see one?”


This colleague, the foreign rights agent, was staring at me like I was just the dumbest person she had ever met. How could Seamus have possibly just hired me to be his new assistant? You had to be whip-smart to handle that, as the job was sort of like running a small nation (and you also had to be really stupid on the other hand--or, let's say naive. He would make you put up with stuff any rational human being would object to. But I didn’t know that part yet).


I had never really thought about people shooting up around me. My only exposure to heroin use had been repeated viewings of the über-depressing German film Christiane F. (my best friend used to love that one, while frankly, it made me want to kill myself to watch it…observing the fast decline of a once-promising and pretty young German teen into the dank underworld of the evil H).



 


Lesson #2: When the grocery guys deliver the boxes of food, do not even say “thank you” because then they think you’re not going to tip them…as if the words coming out of your mouth are each substitutes for dollars.


“Oh, thank you! Thanks so much. Thanks for bringing up these boxes,” I said as the delivery man lugged up cookies, strawberries, coffee, and paper towels.


The next thing I knew, he had actually, in a fit of rage, tossed a box back down three flights of stairs. “Lady, I do not work for THANK YOU!” he spat. “I work for TIP!”


He stormed off.


“What just happened?” I asked my co-worker.  I was dazed, incredulous. I was just being polite. My plan, which I thought was just normal, was to tip him at the end.


“Duh, don’t even speak to them. They’re crazy,” she declared. “Just stand at the top of the stairs with a few bills in your hand so they keep coming back up.”


Okay, then. Now I knew.


Lesson #3:  Stop boring conversations in their tracks. Life is too short. 


My boss’ pet peeve was talking about wine. He had no interest in wine, except for drinking it. Of course he didn’t like bad wine (who does?), but that was about the extent of it.  One of his friends--I think it was just a political relationship, actually--was an insufferable oenophile who was always inviting him over for dinner.   As good manners dictate, and I knew this, one should always bring wine when visiting someone’s house in the evening. 


Seamus would send me out to his neighborhood wine store beforehand to get the goods.  “What will you say to my wine guy, Brian?” he quizzed me.


I thought fast. “Please give Seamus two bottles of wine that are good enough so that he will not be embarrassed. But not so good that they will cause him any further discussion.” 


"Yes, exactly!” He sent me off.


Life lesson number four:  If someone says, “Don’t let my kid win,” he does not actually mean it.


Part of my job, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, was playing tennis with the boss’ son.  My boss had a country house in Connecticut. With a tennis court. 


“Bring your racket,” he’d say to me, every couple of weeks. “You’re going to play Rex.” 


Great. Rex was eight. I am not much of a tennis player, but I can return the ball and sometimes I even have a wicked backhand, so I thought it would be a reasonable game, evenly matched. I hoped. 


“Don’t let him win,” the boss reminded me, looking grave, as if not winning was something Rex really needed to get used to.  I wasn’t sure if this commandment meant never let Rex win, or don’t purposely or obviously give up the game so that he wins. Either way, I sort of forgot about it. 


I won, though not by much. 


Rex cried big hot tears. His face turned sort of purple. He hid under the dining room table. My boss seemed furious. But what had he told me, repeatedly, about not letting the kid win? I felt terrible because Rex was a nice little boy, well-mannered, quiet; besides, it just happened. 


Rex apparently thought he was a much better tennis player than he actually was because the truth is that tennis is not, and never has been, my thing. I basically suck except for getting lucky on occasion.


Still, Rex sucked worse.


Lesson #5:  When you’re being ridiculous, don’t let yourself get so carried away that you don’t realize you’re being a jerk.  That’s unforgivable.  Also, don’t cry if you can laugh.


My second day on the job, I was asked to call up the Austrian café around the corner and order some take-out cappuccinos (this was, needless to say, pre-Starbucks).


I never realized, at the age of 22, that there were so many possible permutations of milk and coffee. It never even occurred to me.  But now I was being asked, “Skim or full-fat milk? Shots of syrup? What kind? Temperature of the steamed milk? What do you want sprinkled on top?”


After every question, I had to put down the phone and scribble on a dry-erase board and hold it up in front of Seamus, who was making deals on the other line. He looked increasingly annoyed with each interruption, and I felt myself shrinking, withering, about to die.


Finally, after the last question, I responded to the cafe worker quite snippily, because I couldn’t really take anymore: “What do you mean, what do I want sprinkled on top?” I didn't know there were options for the garnish.


She meant, did I want chocolate or cinnamon? I wrote this, cringing, on the dry-erase board. “Last question. I promise!  Chocolate or cinnamon on top?”


Seamus put down the phone calmly, but then he started to yell. He was unnaturally pissed. “Elizabeth! Let us get something straight right now. Because I never, repeat never, want to be asked this again.  I am always chocolate; I am never cinnamon! Chocolate!! Not cinnamon! Ever!!”


I felt like sobbing, but it came out as a laugh.


“Okay, sweetheart? Okay, then!” Seamus himself seemed relieved, as if he realized he had just said something both incredibly mean and stupid. It was so mean and stupid, it was funny. If I had cried, it would have been a bad scene. But I laughed, so we could brush it aside.


Lesson #6:  When you work for yourself, the work day never ends.  So this was true for my boss, who had his own literary agency. I did not, however, expect it to—by association—also apply to me. But there were days when I had to wake up at 5 a.m. and take a car service up to rural Connecticut. I remember getting there one day around 8 and being told to wake up the new client, who was sleeping in the guest house. 


We routinely recruited big brains to write books. I spent days with these people, helping them figure out what they might write a book about, and banging out a book proposal that could be sold (back in the days when books could be sold without actually being written).


This man, a scientist—let’s call him Errol—had stunk up the guest house with unwashed male reek. I cracked open the cottage door and called to him. He looked up as if he couldn’t believe his luck.


“We’re having breakfast,” I told Errol, in a business-like tone (No, you idiot, I thought, you are not sent girls when you start working with an agent. At least not here.) “Do you eat omelets? Poppy-seed cake? I made some. And then I’m going to help you with the book proposal.”


All day, I worked with Errol, who barely spoke.  He sat on a divan in a Federal-style drawing room, looking a little bored, while I tapped furiously on a computer keyboard. The day was long and painful.


I didn’t think Errol had any good ideas, or any ideas for a book at all. I wondered how he had ever been hired as the new star science professor at Stanford. Why had he been written up in the Times? Damn theTimes. We found many clients there.


When Errol did grunt something, it was an obscurity about particle physics. It was not sexy, and it was taking all my energy to come up with ways to spin this incredibly dry information.


I wasn’t sure how this book was going to get sold…but Seamus was a master, and I was pretty good at helping, too. If it could be done, it would be. I just hoped Seamus would take over because Errol was such a dud, personality-wise, and being around him all day was giving me a headache.


We had dinner at some roadside, rural CT restaurant because we were starving all of a sudden.  Absolutely everything on the menu was fried. Seamus and I were sort of thrown by this (both being arugula and pomegranate-eaters back in the city), but we managed. I think I ate fried mushrooms, reluctantly. Errol was nonplussed. He said little, if anything, during the meal.


We got back to NYC very late. Seamus dropped us off outside his penthouse on Central Park West. We had to take a cab at that point—which I didn’t think was necessarily a class move on Seamus’s part, but he had used his own Mercedes to drive back, and now it was past midnight. I just wanted to go home to Brooklyn and sleep (Seamus completely disapproved of my living in Brooklyn, but the man did not pay me enough for me to consider living anywhere else).


I hailed a cab. Errol was stuck to my side, like a mouse on a glue trap. “Where’s your hotel?” I asked him, intending to drop him off.  He brightened, but said, rather insistently, “I don’t want to go back yet. Let’s go out. You show me New York.”


I hadn’t heard him talk this much all day.


“It’s midnight,” I reminded him. “I have to work tomorrow. I’m tired.”


“I want to see the city,” he whined a bit. “You have to show me the city. Seamus said.”


“Seamus said what?”


“Seamus said you’d do anything I wanted to do. Anything.”


I gave Errol a look. Not a nice one.  “And what do you want to do?”


“I want to see downtown. Let’s hear some music. Have some drinks.”


All I kept thinking was Seamus is not my pimp. Seamus is NOT my pimp. Who knew that Errol was such a whiny little slimeball? And if Errol wants to see downtown…he’s going to see it.


“Fine,” I said. A cab pulled up. I considered taking Errol to Alphabet City and somehow dumping him there, this sheltered, strange man-boy from Palo Alto, but I myself didn’t want to traverse those dark streets alone at night. I couldn't imagine just pushing him out of the cab.


So I compromised with a tranny bar on the lower East Side (though I didn't tell him about the transvestites). We went inside, Errol went to get drinks and a table, and I took off for Brooklyn.  That was the next place Errol had said he wanted to see. As if I would ever take him home.


The next day, Seamus called me into his sanctum and asked, “Did you dump Errol at Madame Lulu’s last night?”


“What? No! He wanted to go there. I was tired. I told him that.”


“You need to entertain the clients,” Seamus said. He sounded both exhausted and ticked.


“After a 19-hour day?” He couldn’t be serious. Could he?


“However long it takes. Keep them happy.” 


There’s no way I was going to make Errol happy. Especially not if making him happy made me unhappy. 


“Well…” Seamus’s voice trailed off suddenly. I think he knew he was asking the impossible, the utterly unreasonable. “So what do you think of Errol? Can we get a book out of him? Fast?”


We could get a book out of a stone. But Errol was just annoying, and I did not like the way he smelled.


“Yeah, of course,” I said, but I wasn’t enthusiastic, and I didn’t sound that way, either.


“The hell with it,” said Seamus, pushing some papers off his desk with finality. “I’m cutting him loose. I’ve lost interest and he frankly doesn’t care that much. He’s looking for something else. And if you have no interest in your client anymore, babycakes, then you have to pack it in.”


That’s another thing I learned.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"No Child Left Behind" or "No Child Left Alive?"

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE BIG MAN


July 24, 2009


Dear President Obama:

 

I know you’ve got your hands full: the economy imploded last year and millions are unemployed; two insanely expensive wars still rage; the American people are suffering badly with lack of healthcare, or healthcare that’s unaffordable. The world as we know it is changing quickly, often in bad ways—thanks to out-of-control pollution and global warming that we either won’t admit to or can’t fix (not that we have the money to, anyway). And those pesky conservatives are praying for you to “fail” and trying to stymie your efforts for positive change at every turn. 

 

Nevertheless, despite all the chaos and all the issues on your ambitious agenda, I must plead with you to focus on one more:  education.  As I was writing this yesterday, you were speaking about a race to the top for American students. Sounds great; let's get to the top. Let's just, please, not make the same stupid mistakes as before.


The biggest mistake (maybe ever?) in education is, to my mind,  No Child Left Behind (I shudder even typing those hateful words). NCLB, as it is known, and as you surely know it, is a reform enacted by the Bush Administration. It is a plan that seems, on its surface (or seemed, when it was first introduced so many years ago) to be a no-brainer. Who wants children to be left behind, especially American children? Who could ever say, “Yeah, let’s just leave them behind?"  It’s like a for-us-or-against-us patriotic issue—but what else would you expect from the administration of George W. Bush?

 

In actuality, however, NCLB in its seven frustrating years of existence has been destroying, not improving, our entire educational system and hurting exactly the students it purports to help.

 

I beg you now to eradicate it. As a teacher and as a mother, as an educated person who finds NCLB about as callously simplistic in its practice as “Just Say No” was for The War on Drugs when Nancy Reagan touted it so many years ago, I ask you please, Sir, dismantle this plan. 

 

NCLB, while it aims to provide top-notch education to all American students (or, at least, aims to show that our students must be decently prepared, given their scores on certain tests) actually turns school into a factory-like system. Students in certain years spend literally months doing nothing but preparing for standardized tests, which are then used to chart the school’s “progress.” Those school districts whose students do not score a certain percentage at a Proficient level (which is ever-increasing) are then penalized and, soon afterward, shut down.

 

The worst part of NCLB is that it hurts the students who need help the most. Schools in poor areas, and in cities, or schools with large and diverse student populations, may not have had the funding in years past (or may not ever have attracted the most experienced or skilled teachers) to prepare every student to the utmost. These are the schools that get warnings—making teachers so paranoid that they will literally do nothing but “teach to the test.” These are the schools that then get closed, leaving the already-hurting students to go bring down the quotas somewhere else, while often needing to travel an hour each way to do it—which they can usually ill-afford.

 

Principals and teachers live in fear of NCLB. It is making their jobs nightmarish. It is turning our kids off.  Children are bored to tears with the constant drilling they endure, the lack of learning for learning’s sake, the total absence of inspiration, creativity, and room for “extras” such as field trips, library time, art, and gym--or just plain fun. NCLB is making school a miserable place and doing exactly what I believe, as an educator, is the worst thing that an educational system can do: ascribing meaning only to test scores and to numbers.  The only good thing to be said about NCLB is that kids have opportunities to win iPods if they score well as a group (the school then holds a lottery; yes, this happens where I live; that’s how messed up the program is).

 

Will our children be better prepared for life because they have taken several years’ worth of big state tests, lured by the very remote possibility of winning an iPod or iPhone? No. We all realize there is a profound difference between streets smarts and book smarts. At the rate we are going with NCLB, however, our kids may only have “test smarts,”—if that. 

 

Let’s scrap “No Child Left Behind.” It doesn't work and it makes everyone unhappy.  Instead, let’s make sure that all  “American Children Get Ahead”—because we care about educating each child as a whole, individual person, as human beings, not numbers.

 

Now having said all that, I must ask that you also show your support for the developing minds and talents of American kids by insuring that Gifted and Talented programs are fully funded.  As a nation, we put plenty of money into programs that we hope will raise up the lowest-scoring populations (whether or not these programs even work, as NCLB clearly doesn’t work too well), but while that was being done, the really brilliant kids were totally ignored.

 

I am not saying that brilliant students are more deserving of federal dollars than remedial students are. What I’m saying is that we can’t throw money at one problem (low performance) while ignoring the kids who may, in fact, turn out to be our best hope for fixing some of the gargantuan messes we as Americans currently face.

 

If we just let the smart kids fend for themselves, if we let them doodle in the back of classrooms while other kids get tutored, then are they ever going to reach their potential? No, they’ll probably just slide into mediocrity, fade into obscurity.

 

When school bores them (as it bores most kids right now), even the geniuses will just turn off and may even stop trying. They may never go on to achieve what they might have, if they had only had the opportunity for enrichment that not only Gifted programs, but also basic library services, art classes and even guest speakers and interesting field trips, might have provided. All these so-called "extras" have been cut because there's no time to draw and run around on the playground when absolutely everything hinges on some standardized tests. (Obviously, lack of enrichment hurts every student--not just the especially bright ones.)

 

Funding for gifted programs (the Javits funding) is going to come before the Senate next week. The House already passed it—which surprised me a bit, since I don’t have much faith in Congress right now, given the partisan bickering and blocking of progress. At least they voted to keep the funding the same as last year, and not reduce it. But anyway—the true test is in the Senate, and barring that, in you, President Obama.

 

If we want reform that will be truly meaningful, we need to start with our kids. They are the ones who inherit the problems we have created, or those that have been created and left for us to clean.  They are also the ones who may figure out how to solve them. It all starts with education.

 

One mess we can fix is No Child Left Behind.  Once that’s done, let’s also make sure that all our kids get what they need in school: namely, inspiration to achieve.

 

Thanks for reading this.

 

Elizabeth Collins