Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thanks to all my Teachers

Recently, an article made me think about the many teachers I've had over the years. Now, I mean literal teachers - I'll return to the metaphorical ones at another time. The article asked writers to talk about an important lesson a teacher had taught them somewhere along the way. As many were science writers, there was a good mix of science and english teachers full of wisdom about revising your work, not being afraid to experiment and to remember to harness what you love to be happy in your life work.

So, me being me, I tried to remember moments like this. I was one of those Students. A person who realized early on that she was good at school and little else. That my natural propensity to read everything I can get my hands on and to be able to remember it made school a walk in the park. Memorize a bunch of facts and spit them back out again? I could do that in my sleep. And did for many years. I had teachers who'd challenge me every once in a while - a hard read in advanced reading group would keep me occupied for a few days, my first research paper would make me nervous and send me into research realms I didn't really touch again until college but honestly? School was a walk in the park until 9th grade. 

A pair of teachers all of the sudden decided myself and fellow honors students had been living the easy life long enough. 9th grade Global History class was unlike anything we'd encountered - our textbook was college level and our teacher treated us like college students. Gone were the nicely organized notes and easy to follow questions where we could cite a sentence from the text and be done with it. Our teacher expected us to know the text enough to fill in the blanks of her haphazard key words scrawled across the overhead - we were there to understand history, not simply repeat a lot of dates. We learned Taoist exercises and wrote essays about surviving stranded in the Amazon rain forest - in short, we learned to apply history, not simply memorize it. It was revolutionary. 

Down the hall, we met an English teacher who wasn't going to give us a bunch of easy-to-answer questions simply proving we'd done the reading. This is when I really fell in love with the study of English literature - the idea that how I responded to a piece of writing was just as important as understanding the symbolism of the same short story. I wrote my first college worthy essay in this class, wrote my first actually decent piece of fiction and also learned that I liked the unconventional for school projects (I picked the one Greek deity who didn't have a myth for a class project that year and adored her - I still see Hestia as the Archivist of Olympus). These two classes combined taught me a valuable lesson - I hadn't liked school because I was interested in it, I had liked school because I was good at it, because it was easy. 9th grade taught me I could love school when it challenged me (I'm weird that way). 

However, I learned how to play that game pretty quickly too and I also learned that as long as I did well on paper, my teachers seemed pretty happy with me. Being a shy person by nature, I only spoke up in class when I needed to and avoid presentations at all costs (barring French class of course - Madame requires her very own blog post someday). I would write a 10 page paper before I would willing open my mouth in class and most teachers let me get away with it. So, let's fast forward to second semester of freshman year of college for the next pair of teachers that changed me. 

I'd pretty much coasted through first semester without too much worry, had carried a 4.0 average without a single late night. Thankfully, I received another one of those double whammy wake-ups calls to make sure I got the most out of college. My Critical Methods professor was tough and opinionated. I was in the class with a lot of English majors in their sophomore and junior years who'd already used a lot of critical theory in class. Our prof was fine with freshmen taking the class but we had to pull our weight. I tried to impress in my first paper and ended up with my first bad grade of college. I'd understood the theory OK but hadn't applied it well to my literature choices at all. So for my second paper I used my favorite theory, Readers Response and fell back on The Little Prince, arguably a children's book. To this day, that remains one of my all time favorite essays of college - I needed to remember that understanding a theory didn't mean I had to complicate it more. 

However, the hardest, and scariest moment was yet to come. I was taking a Survey of Medieval and Renaissance Lit that semester with a bunch of juniors so I was afraid to open my mouth. Not that I would have on my own either but they were kind of intimidating. However, after our first quiz, the professor called me up after class. "You scored one of the highest on the quiz, why don't you talk in class?" I remember stammering out something lame and shrugging my shoulders. Not good enough my prof said, either start talking or I'll fail you. Now, failure is a major issue with me; my college admissions essay had been about my fear of failure. So, you can imagine, I was terrified. So, I started talking about anything and everything. Even the silliest observation I'd made about a poem I'd put out there and something amazing happened, others agreed with me or argued with me but no one laughed at me or flat out said I was wrong. That survey class became one of my most rewarding experiences of my undergrad degree and also finally got me over the fear of talking in class. My classroom experiences became so much more relevant, rewarding, and fun after I learned that lesson and its one that serves me well in meetings today. 

So thanks to the teachers who challenged me to be more than I was - you taught me to write well, speak up, realize a mistake isn't the end of the world and defend my opinions. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser

From Children's Book Wiki
I grew up on the 1951 Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. I never much cared for it to be honest. It was confusing, lost its own train of thought often and seemed to have no real point. Sadly, it took my wise old self to realize that was sort of the point. I am afraid as a child, I didn't much care for nonsense. I only learned to appreciate it with age. I also think I never quite forgave it for not being the same Alice in Wonderland I watched on the Disney Channel each morning which was just...friendlier. My sister and I even used to pretend that one was the Queen and one the Duchess from that version (I liked being the Duchess -Teri Garr rules).

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass though have been on my to-read list for a long time and I thought perhaps I was in the mood for some nonsense. Which is exactly what Lewis Carroll wrote. Lots and lots of confusing, non-linear nonsense about the adventures of a small child in a world called Wonderland where nothing was as it was supposed to be. All the characters one loves is there: Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Red Queen, the White Rabbit and the hookah-smoking caterpillar. There are even more ridiculous poems (hmmm, might be why I've never rushed to read it) and changes in scene that one can shake a stick at and yet I liked reading it once I embraced the fact that it would never make sense, no matter how many times I read a sentence.

After finishing the book, I took another look at Tim Burton's re-imaging of the story with Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter (along with a killer supporting cast) and found it to be even more clever than I had originally thought. Where Carroll gives a reader loose vignettes in chapter form, in order to create a sequel, Linda Woolverton (let's face it, I was going to love it if she wrote it), had to use Carroll's snippets to create a past for the now 19 year old Alice who has returned to Underland to save her old friends, even if she can't quite remember them anymore. Alice, who in the original story is sort of annoying at times, becomes a kick-ass heroine who slays the Jobberwocky and then sails off into the sunset on her own, off to see the world after turning down a rather unfortunate marriage prospect (you go girl!). The movie is full of references to the original story but also builds on what happened between the time Alice was first in Wonderland to the moment she returns. The Red and White Queens have fallen out and Underland is torn apart by their argument so now Alice must save the day. I definitely appreciate the story more now than before.

However, I fear the Walrus and the Carpenter scene in the 1951 version will still creep me out.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The history of football is actually interesting...

From Goodreads
I am watching football as I write this.

Those of you who know me may close your mouths now. After finishing a book about the history of the game which ends with the fascinating story of the first "air game" between Notre Dame and Army in 1913, I felt the need to watch the modern-day version of a game that started out more like rugby's ugly younger brother.

Very rarely do I do reading for work during my off-time. I spend a lot of time with Theodore Roosevelt during the day, so I like to take a break from the exhausting character when I'm not at work. However, our big annual event is coming up and some authors who recently published works on Roosevelt are planning on attending and I'd like to talk to them about their new books for my blog at work. Which means I need to have read these books. Minor technicality. While two of them do not come out until next month, John J. Miller's The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football came out earlier this year so I started with the one I could get my hands on easiest.

Now, I'm not much of a football fan. I find the game somewhat slow at times - I much prefer basketball or hockey, games which are constantly moving. However, I grew up watching football along with the other two sports. My dad is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and so is my sister. I remember the Super Bowls between the Bills and Cowboys because my uncle would be in the house to see who would win the bet between he and my dad. I vaguely recall going to Syracuse University football games when I was a kid and my parents had season tickets (and the team was, well...decent). So, I know the basics of the game. Which was helpful for reading this book, let me tell you. But I'm not a fan. Perhaps if I hadn't attended Michigan during a football slump (actually, they'd done better since I left Ann Arbor...perhaps it was me...), I would have been a convert to the game.

Miller clearly loves the game and he assumes the reader has some knowledge of the game and how it is played today. Mainly I was impressed that I could follow him at times - apparently I have absorbed more football knowledge than I thought over the years. The book follows the game of football as it developed into a major college sport, using Roosevelt as sort of a thread along the side of the story until his direct 1905 intervention into the game by calling a "football summit" at the White House. Deaths on the gridiron were quite common when football first started being played on college campuses. There were no rules and players wore no safety equipment. However, the game played into a new movement called Muscular Christianity so the early attempts to ban it did not stick as it was popular with students and popular with public figures as a game which produced strong, brave and honorable young men. Miller follows the stories of the earliest opponents to football such as Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University. He introduces Walter Camp, the father of football, and his struggle to make it 10 yards for a down and to keep the forward pass out of the game for good (can you imagine?). If you are looking for a book that will give you an overview of football's earliest years, Miller delivers.

If nothing else, I think I have a greater appreciation for the game of football and how it reached the pinnacle of popularity it has enjoyed for decades (something a trip to the Football Hall of Fame as a kid couldn't even instill in me). So, I sit here on a Sunday watching football and marveling at the game that started out as a bunch of young men shoving each other around a muddy field in Cambridge. Pretty impressive, I must say.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


From Goodreads
Now that the summer reading challenge is over and my vacation is only a fond memory, I thought I should perhaps get back to my yearlong reading goal of getting around to all those books I should have read by now. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has been on my list a long time. It was one of those books in that genre that I successfully avoided for most of my English undergraduate career. I touched on this when I spoke about Slaughterhouse-Five earlier this year. And yet again, I enjoyed this book for some inexplicable reason.

Well, OK, not inexplicable. Catch-22 is funny. Strike that, it is laugh out loud hilarious at times.  Sure, every character in it is despicable and insane. Sure, it takes making its point to almost annoyingly extreme levels. But it made me laugh. For that, I can forgive it a lot of things.

For those of you who haven’t read it, Catch-22 follows the plight of Yossarian, a bomber stationed in Italy during World War II along with a motley crew of insane colonels, doctors and pilots. I say insane and mean it – there is not a one of them I would trust to see me home safely let alone send up with a plane full of bombs.  Yossarian is convinced there are people out to kill him which, considering he’s in active duty during a war, is perhaps not so insane as it seems. His colonel keeps raising the number of missions he has to fly to go home, there is a major who is a recluse, a chaplain who is being investigated for crimes he may or may not have committed, tent mates slowly building stoves or dead, and a growing list of men who are disappearing, either dead or managed to convince everyone they are. It’s pretty much chaos.

I did find the characterizations fascinating because Yossarian, who starts out seemingly despicable, actually turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Which, perhaps in this book, isn’t saying much but you do end up cheering him along. People I started out liking like Milo, the mess officer who is running an illegal international shipping cartel with the sanction of the US government, turned out to really not be very good in the end. I adored Major Major Major who somehow managed to become a recluse in his own squadron by insisting no one ever see him...until the day Yossarian tackled him to the ground and then after that, no one ever saw him again.  You have Nately who is in love with an Italian prostitute, Arfy, who may be the most clinically insane of them all and Dunbar who is disappeared after he makes one too many common sense remarks.  

The characters helped when the story didn’t. The narrative is often disjointed; making reference to events that the reader hasn’t been told about yet. This seemed clever at first but then just sort of got old. Heller would often belabor a point too long. Yes, everyone is ridiculous and not making sense – the point is made quickly. At times, it was just tedious to read. The chaplain’s interrogation is a major moment where I skimmed because I was just annoyed and bored. The point that there was no point was made within the first paragraph, I didn’t need a chapter going on and on about it. Of course, that is the point; that there is no point. Bother, now I remember why novels of this era and genre are not my favorites.

However, like I said, the book made me laugh and I can forgive it for being a little too in love with its purpose at times. What is its purpose? Obviously, it is a satire addressing the ineptitude and complete disregard for human life that war seems to bring out in people and especially their governments. Heller himself was in the air corps during World War II so he knew what he was talking about enough to poke fun at it and criticize it.

All in all, I am glad I added this novel to my reading list for the year. I think I would have loathed studying it in a classroom but just reading it and being able to enjoy it (or skim it as needed) was entertaining. I wish Yossarian a lot of luck getting to Sweden.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We've lost a dreamer

The rest of the world is doing a much better job than I ever could in paying tribute to the visionary we lost yesterday but for what it's worth, I wanted to pay my respects as well.

Every once in awhile, the world gets a true dreamer. Someone who sees the world in a way most of us would never dream of. Someone who can look at something and say with confidence, "that is the future." Steve Jobs was one of those people. 

Growing up in a very tech advanced house (something I am only coming to appreciate as I get older), I have always been awed by what technology can do and awed by the people who have the creativity and know-how to bring that technology into the homes of millions of people world-wide. I am an Apple girl. I still own my first iPod, a first gen I bought off a friend when she upgraded. It lives permanently on my iHome and probably would have the battery life of a minute if I took it off but it still works perfectly. I got my first Macbook late during my first year of grad school, but I am never going back to a PC again. In fact Darwin, my trusty Mac, is one of my best friends, something I am not embarrassed to admit (well, maybe a little...). I'll get my first iPhone when the iPhone 4S is released later this month. And chances are, I'll never go back from that either. 

Point is, my life has been touched by Steve Jobs. In the biggest way possible. Living as far as I do from home, my computer is my lifeline back and soon, my cell phone will be another link I use to stay in touch with the world. 

So I guess, what I want to say to a man I've never met is thanks. And safe travels to the next stop, whatever it may be.